Fans of Arnold Wesker’s Roots like to say this ‘was and is a revolutionary play’, but perhaps the emphasis should be on the ‘was’.
Roots could easily have been subtitled ‘waiting for Ronnie’, who sounds like the worst kind of smart arse (but who, to be fair and without giving anything away, is finally revealed to be refreshingly human). As we wait two weeks for Ronnie to venture out to deepest rural Norfolk to meet his future in-laws, we find his fiancée, Beatie, bursting with things to say about the man who has freed her from a simple, but so she now fears, ignorant life. Ronnie has taught her so much that she needs to pass on to her family; knowledge that will lift them to higher place. And so an image of Ronnie as towering guru and (shockingly) amazing lover is developed; a façade that simply has to give way. How will this man live up to Beatie’s hyperbole?
Writing in the late-1950s on the tension between town and city – with the latter thinking the former intellectually challenged – Arnold Wesker does remind us of the forces that have led to creation of reactionary bodies like the Countryside Alliance. But, that’s probably too generous. Roots has its moments, but it’s hard to care for any of the characters who are all rather crudely drawn. (We were tempted to leave at the interval, but it does pick up in the second half.) A play of and for its time, perhaps.
Arnold Wesker’s Roots is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 1 March.