Streetcars, Smoke and Southern Belles: Contemporary Approaches to Tennessee Williams

Summer and Smoke Streetcar and Glass Menagerie

In the week that National Theatre at Home broadcasts the Young Vic’s superb 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s timely to note how representations of Tennessee Williams’s work has changed as a result, with a broadening of approaches particularly visible in the last 18-months. As a great American dramatist, Williams’s timeless understanding of human emotion and the particularly explosive dynamics of family groups has always been such a notable feature of his writing and for which the latest crop of productions have scruitinised his work. There has been a shift from period-focused productions that situate Williams’s play squarely in their 1940s and 1950s context to more contemporary or undefinable settings, while entirely reinterpreted productions of big hitters StreetcarCat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, which recur with some frequency, have shared the limelight with less celebrated plays as directors made an impassioned case for the value of Williams’s wider portfolio and new ways of seeing his work.

The screening of the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire via National Theatre at Home, available since last Thursday, is a valuable reminder of what a landmark production this was in several ways, beautifully skirting the boundaries of reality and illusion so redolent of Williams’s tone and characters. Benedict Andrews’s modern approach brought revelatory insight to this frequently performed classic, representing Blanche as a vulnerable predator whose declining mental health is so tangibly associated with a youthful tragedy and the subsequent denial of her natural instincts. There’s nothing timid about the nature of desire in Andrews interpretation, it is passionate, explosive and ultimately damaging, and since 2014, productions have increasingly taken this approach to staging the Williams canon.

Rediscovering the Emotional Power of ‘Lesser’ Works

The most significant consequence of this has been for venues to investigate the broader work that Williams has produced. A prolific playwright with over 100 full length and One Act credits, the opportunity to see and reassess some of these pieces has been a fascinating one. Rebecca Frecknall’s Summer and Smoke for the Almeida which earned a West End transfer to the Duke of York’s, has perhaps done more than any other Williams production in the last decade to broaden our perspective of the writer. Stripping the production of staging and locational debris, Frecknall’s production brought a powerful resonance to the central relationship between socially awkward Alma and lonely Doctor John that was as affecting and emotionally loaded as anything you’ll see in Streetcar or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The focus on the tentative intimacy between these two fragile personalities was spellbinding as they movingly failed to find a rhythm, always out of step with each other on personal trajectories that unravelled and reconstructed their characters, making it impossible to be together.

Frecknall understood the rhythm of Williams’s writing so well, the heartbeat of a play in which its two protagonists are so trapped withing their own nature and so confined by the public perception of their personality that they are unable to respond to deeper calls within themselves. For Alma these are the earthier, animalistic impulses of attraction, whereas for John it is the more soulful demands of his heart. The clarity and power of this was both tangible and devastating in Frecknall’s production, making a startling case for the value of this rarely seen play.

Theatre Clywd’s production of Orpheus Descending which transferred to the Menier is by no means Williams’s best writing, to a degree lacking the simmering tension of family secrets, using the arrival of a stranger to unlock the past which partially lessens the impact of its consequences. Yet, this enjoyable version had much to say on Williams’s theme of caged personalities as store owner Lady was drawn to drifter Val. Here we particularly felt Williams’s empathy both for women who subvert their impulses as Lady does through her respectable marriage to Torrance, and for those whose natural exuberance and persistence destroys them as it does with Carol Cutrere. This insight really gets to the heart of so much of Williams’s work as the external ordinariness of his female characters in particular contrasts with the raging unfulfilled desires within them. Therein lies their essential tragedy, that small-town society disapproves of and sometimes actively persecutes the sexual need and expression of the Carols and Blanches in Williams’s plays but is more accepting of male promiscuity, confines the female characters even further, creating shame and self-loathing that empathetically drives them to the physical and psychological edge of society .

Finally, the King’s Head put together two rarely seen short-plays for its Southern Belles programme in July 2019 exploring sexuality and gender in the One Act pieces Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. This proved a meaningful double bill, one that confirms Williams’s interested in hidden, unconstrainable and ultimately destructive emotional layers within the individual. There was also a fascinating power dynamic in both duologues that questioned how these two relationships were affected by monetary transaction and social status. In both an ’employer’ figure utilises their seniority to make demands they are not longer able to constrain, wrongly (perhaps) assuming the other returned their feelings. What was so interesting about Jamie Armitage’s approach was that central uncertainty, showing how commandingly Williams could relay shifting power dynamics, building scenes to a point where the narrative and the lead characters must make an all or nothing play, leaving them vulnerable and exposed.

Staging Simplicity 

Supporting these internalised and more emotionally suggestive approaches in which the external need to be ‘respectable’ contends with a character’s natural and often wilder impulses, staging approaches have become increasingly simplified and symbolic, emphasising atmosphere and tone.  A general trend across theatre which has also released the works of Chekhov and Pinter from their period confinement, with notional rather than explicit set detail contributing to this wider reassessment of Williams’s themes.

Both Southern Belles and Orpheus Descending performed in the three-quarter round opted for representative sets, implying just enough reality to indicate setting and era to the audience while clearing the main performance space for the interior character experience to fill the room. Designer Jonathan Fensom implied the inside of Lady’s store with a wooden slatted backdrop, representative seating area and a hint of the other rooms. Similiarly, Sarah Mercadé for Southern Belles also took an indicative approach with a few carefully positioned  pieces of furniture, while draping the small King’s Head auditorium in pink fabric. Both designers provided just enough visual information to prompt the audience’s imagination, while giving the actors a platform to prioritise intimacy between the characters and their emotional excavation.

Arguably, this simplicity works best in smaller spaces and when Benedict Andrews took a similarly parred-back approach to his disappointing 2017 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which designer Magda Willi created a monied and stylishly-minimised set, the oddly cold atmosphere failed to fill the Apollo’s cavernous space and gave the production a hollow ring. Set design has to reflect the heat within Williams’s plays, so it is interesting that Summer and Smoke had no such problems when it transferred to the Duke of York’s where its entirely representative set worked just as powerfully in the close confines of the Almeida as it did later in the West End. Very little in Tom Scutt’s design indicated the play’s location or era, instead a semi-circle of pianos, a metronome and lighting became the physical substance of a play that used music and beat to chart the emotional rhythm of the central relationship with considerable success, leading us back to Williams’s fascination with the line between reality and illusion.

James Macdonald’s Night of the Iguana may have bucked the trend for simpler sets last year but strong characterisation by Clive Owen and Lia Williams overcame the cartoony background to give a captivating depth to the conversations between the alcoholic cleric and the unassuming traveller. In spite of this, the general trend since Andrews Streetcar has been a sharper focus on using the text and Williams’s language to create tone and claustrophobic tension between the characters – the fact that budget and space limitations has meant this way of looking at Williams’s work has emerged largely from the smaller Off-West End and Fringe venues is testament to their influence within the industry where visual trends don’t just filter down from the top.

A New Context – The Future of Characterisation

Some of the most fascinating developments have been in reconceiving a play in its entirety, changing not just its era but thinking about character and context that take interpretations of Williams’s work in quite different and exciting new directions. Making a case for the absolute universality of the writer’s emotional constructs, director Femi Elufowoju jr completely reimagined The Glass Menagerie at the Arcola last autumn, retaining its period setting but making the working-class Wingfield family African-American – a decision which worked seamlessly, adding a fresh dimension to a well-worn story.  With its notes of faded dreams and missed opportunities, the production developed an added nuance without changing a word of the original text, shifting the emphasise to the limitations of the American Dream and its aspirations while adding a deeper but valuable social and political commentary – a layer that Marianne Elliott also extracted from her similar treatment of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Who knows what further levels Ivo van Hove would have discovered (or lost) in slimming Williams’s play to two hours, and performing it in French by a Parisian company, led by the Belgian director. With Isabelle Huppert  playing the role of Amanda, this postponed production, which was due to arrive at the Barbican in early June as the second stop on a European tour, may be another theatre casualty of the pandemic, but its very existence speaks to a new interest in reinterpreting Williams and examining the application of his themes in different international contexts, even in translation.

These productions open enormous possibilities for the future of Williams’s work where the universality of the human experience and the ways in which societies attempt to define and confine the individual are applied to entirely new scenarios. The destructive impulses that Williams writes about are not unique to American society and if Inua Ellams can relocate Chekhov to Nigeria, then Williams can exist anywhere that a physical heat and secrets drive human behaviour.  Recent productions continue to push the boundaries of interpretation, increasing our understanding and appreciation of one of the twentieth-century’s most enduring playwrights. ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic’ Blanche exclaims in A Streetcar Named Desire; no matter how and where his plays are staged Williams always shows us the painful fragility of both. Let’s keep pushing.

A Streetcar Named Desire is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until Thursday 28 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 600 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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