It’s a great summer to be a Tennessee Williams fan, not just for the range of productions in recent months which have offered new insights into established and lesser-known works, but the last couple of weeks have felt like an immersive Williams drama for the entire UK. With a recent heatwave that at its peak felt like walking through soup, the catalyst of a new Prime Minister in a political climate strained to breaking point, and a feeling that everyone is holding their breath as the social tension rises. Right now, we all know what it feels like to be a Williams character waiting for that clarifying thunderstorm to clear the emotional decks.
Launching their 6-week Queer Season, the King’s Head Theatre have revived Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, two rarely performed One-Act plays by Tennessee Williams that place same-sex relationships at the heart of the drama. In a spate of unconnected productions of Orpheus Descending, Night of the Iguana and a reimagining of The Glass Menagerie, this mini-season reveals a consistency in Williams’s writing about the experience of loneliness, the inevitable power-imbalance in all relationships and self-denial that belies sexuality, giving many of his central characters a kind of tragic dignity.
Badged together as Southern Belles, these two short plays – running at around 40-minutes each – are fairly slight by the writer’s own standards, but a lesser work by Williams still sits far above many other plays. What he does so well is to create emotional resonance and an intangible sense of thwarted desire, of patterns of behaviour replicated again and again from which his characters are unable to break free. In Something Unspoken that is the silent affection that Cornelia has harboured for her secretary Grace for 15-years, allowing it to sit unacknowledged between them, while in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens transvestite Candy enters into a destructive cycle with a man she clings to.
These two pieces are also united by the class disparity in their central partnership; the mistress-servant relationship in Something Unspoken becomes as much of a barrier between them as their failure to voice their true feelings, and Cornelia’s behaviour, which borders on the predatory, sits uncomfortably as she pushes her employee to admit feelings it’s not entirely clear that she shares. Similarly, in the second piece, Candy appears in male garb at the start of the play, displaying a delicate refinement, has picked up a working-class sailor for the night, drawing him back to her flat for an elaborate seduction. Candy’s insistence on friendship alone and the subtext between them suggesting that she too may be playing a more elaborate predatory game to coerce him into bed.
These central ambiguities come alive really well in director Jamie Armitage’s production, picking out the moments in both plays in which the closeness of the central pair ebbs and flows as the story unfolds, punctuated with moments of sharp confrontation and contrasting intimacy between the couples. Though both very short pieces, Williams creates waves of tension through these conversations that crest and resettle as the characters warily circle around each other, and it is these undercurrents that Armitage’s two productions manages to elicit so well, focusing-in on the tentative confidence and nervy reserve of four broken people.
The evening opens with Something Unspoken set in 1948 as Cornelia Scott awaits the election results of her local Daughters of the Confederacy group having refused to attend the vote, expecting to be automatically and unopposedly granted the leadership position. During the tense wait her long-dormant feelings for Secretary Grace are articulated and while there is an awkwardness in how Williams suddenly forces the two narrative strands to collide so rapidly, Armitage’s production draws-out many conflicting layers of meaning and interpretation. Willliams uses the frequent telephone interjections bringing updates from the election to slice through the building tension and reset the dramatic direction within the central exchange.
Annabel Leventon’s Cornelia is a forceful personality, attempting to impose her will both on the local women’s association and on the feelings of her employee who never outrightly confirms that this attraction is mutual. There is a hard surface to Cornelia, a prominent figure in a group that had charitable aims to memorialise Confederate soldiers and had raised funds for hospitals during wartime but by 1945 was linked to white supremacy with a discernible relationship with the Ku Klux Klan. Nothing Cornelia says makes reference to her politics or her intentions as leader, but this membership is no coincidence and despite the attachment to Grace which causes her great pain, Williams has chosen this membership deliberately to amplify her ambiguity as the play’s driving force.
Leventon’s performance captures these complexities, her Cornelia is full of outward dignity with a determination to which her refined Southern accent gives a cold entitlement. Her one-sided conversations with lackey Esmeralda in which she remotely attempts to overcome a clique of detractors set to destabilise the election are full of outrage and bluster, amazed that anyone would dare defy her but delivered with a cool social veneer that keeps everything respectable. And while the sharp turn into her romantic feelings is a little sudden from Williams, Leventon finds a genuine ache in Cornelia’s centre which the pressure of the day has exposed, although the final moments leave you wondering whether her political or personal life takes precedence.
Fiona Marr’s shy and confused Grace is extremely well pitched, contrasting thoughtfully with her more certain employer. No longer the young woman of 15-years before, Marr suggests that Grace is by no means as certain of her feelings as Cornelia, unable to determine if she feels love or merely great respect and companionship for this other woman. Marr skitters about the stage with furrowed brow unsure how to respond to these overtures and the extent to which her job security depends on returning them. But there’s just enough fright in Marr’s performance to suggest her demure may be the ‘silly little female trick’ the Cornelia accuses her of. Left unresolved we’re not quite sure if Grace is the victim of unwanted attention of the victor of the long game.
The second play set in 1955 New Orleans (the same location as the charming The View Upstairs set in the 1970s) takes its title from a misquoted line in Shakespeare’s Richard II, a beautiful piece of poetry in which the now desolate monarch realises he has lost everything and can only ‘sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’ to which his own will be inevitably added. Evolving the idea that King Richard’s destruction was in part caused by the inability of others to accept his overt sexuality (in the play at least), Williams uses Candy to draw clear parallels with the medieval tragedy. The fractious interactions with sailor Karl who refuses to acknowledge his own attraction to Candy are contrasted by her desperation to feel love above all things. And like King Richard, she sacrifices money, dignity and even safety to secure even a moment’s deep connection to an attractive person.
Reprising a role he played last year when the King’s Head Theatre previously staged this production, Luke Mullins brings with him a damaged intensity from the start. Williams launches right into a deep conversation between these two men with Candy – at this point dressed as a man – speaking openly for several minutes while Karl is all but silent. There is a tender delicacy in Mullins’s interpretation of Candy with a nervous thrum that underscores the performance throughout, both determined to take the lead knowing that the young man before her will succumb eventually, but also reeling from the breakdown of a 17-year relationship that has left her fragile and frightened.
Mullins is superb, treading the line between seductive certainty and a tremulous need to be seen which brings a real heft to the charged interactions with Karl. There is a shifting cat and mouse element to the unfolding exchange that is extremely well realised in which Mullins’s intensely felt performance which veers between victim and conqueror as Williams tips the balance at various points. It’s too simplistic to think of Candy as an equivalent Blanch Dubois figure but Mullins finds a deep-seated strengthened fragility that aligns with the fearful determination of many Williams heroines to force a kind of happiness for themselves whatever it costs.
George Fletcher’s Karl (also reprising his role from last year) has many of the strong silent characteristics of Williams’s men, unable to articulate his desires with an illusion of physical control. Fletcher also uses the flow of the text to mark Karl’s moments of ascendance and fear, tracing his quite different path through the story while learning how much power he has to wield. The thuggish aspects of Karl play well against his uncontrollable physical attraction to Candy as both a man and a woman, creating a force between the actors which is impossible to resist and richly satisfying for the audience.
Sarah Mercadé’s three-quarter round set is a pink boudoir of fluffy carpet and gauzy curtains that utterly transform the tiny King’s Head Theatre and serve both scenarios well. Aside from a raised circular dais at one end with some seating, the approach is minimalist but representative enough of the feminine decadence of the South to allow Williams’s text and characters to take centre-stage without any physical clutter to distract us. Joe Beighton weaves the evening together with music, including a scene setting rendition of ‘All I Do is Dream of You’ performed by Ben Chinapen at the start and Michael Burrows emotive piano version of ‘You Made Me Love You’ tying both productions together.
With a combined running time of c.100-minutes this is a short evening and while And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens and Something Unspoken may not be fully evolved plays, Armitage’s production has plenty to say. As the conclusion to a strong season of unusual Williams revivals, Southern Belles proves valuable and illuminating, concluding with an important moment of solidarity that leaves the audience with a sense of hope and the value of community to take home. As the rain sets in across the UK clearing up the heat of recent weeks, perhaps our own real-life Williams drama is heading for some kind of conclusion as well.