Described by the author as the most beautiful play he had written since A Streetcar Named Desire, the London premiere of The Two Character Play in 1967 left Tennessee Williams in a fit of despair in what was one of the playwright’s darkest periods. Although rewritten for its first American outing in 1971, its remains a rarely performed piece and one of Williams’s most challenging, claustrophobic works. Sam Yates offers a fresh interpretation now back where it all began at the Hampstead Theatre to conclude a season of work celebrating notable plays like The Dumb Waiter and Death of a Black Man that debuted at the venue.
We think we know Tennessee Williams both on and off the stage – the alcoholic writer with an intense lifestyle who ploughed his troubled family relationships into the heart of his work, and biographers love nothing more than drawing parallels between Williams’s sister and the fragile Laura in The Glass Menagerie or the dominance of his mother in every singsong Southern belle. His work, we think, is full of tension, heat, bubbling resentments and family spats that finally, decisively boil over as the rains eventually come to wash away all that mendacity, leaving raw emotional truth in its place.
Yet the work produced in London in recent years has sought to look beyond these surface impressions of Williams’s plays and the rotating triumvirate of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that have entirely defined his work, to demonstrate the different kinds of writer he could be. And this revival of The Two Character Play follows Rebecca Frecknell’s celebrated Summer and Smoke that properly kick-started a reappraisal and mining of Williams’s lesser-known plays, followed by the King’s Head Theatre’s Southern Belles, two one act pieces in which the writer openly considers identity, sexuality and violence contrasting the city and country living.
The Two Character Play is in some ways a typical Williams piece, a brother and sister pairing, chained together eternally and finding the real world an unbearable place to be. They seek escape from the confines of their lives but simultaneously rely on the familiarity of their routines to maintain their stability while their permanent performance is a classic Williams trope in which characters adopt a public face either shamed or unsure of their own.
Yet this play is also like nothing else he wrote, a collection of grotesques in an almost Beckettian hinterland waiting for something to end and Williams is clearly influenced by the rise and structure of absurdist forms which affects not just the sharpened interplay between Felice and Clare but also the void-like existence of the play itself. Like Hamm and Clov in Endgame, the audience is given no sense that any reality exists beyond that created for and between the siblings and unlike his memory plays or the emotional and bodily realism of his more famous works, the context for The Two Character Play comes from its hall of mirrors approach in which the protagonists perform their own play for what we are told is a theatre audience.
For anyone more used to seeing traditional approaches to Williams, then this play may feel somewhat strange and deliberately disorientating as Williams moves the action continually from the backstage relationship to the brother-sister story dramatised in front of the curtain with the boundary increasingly blurred between these worlds This first happens as the play itself starts to go wrong, when Clare’s mutinous behaviour slices through the story and then in the close alignment between the lonely pair dealing with the legacy of their parents’ relationship, unable to leave their house, and the possibly contiguous backstory for Clare and Felice who find themselves unable to leave the theatre.
While characters often feel isolated and even lonely in Williams’s plays largely resulting from a lack of sexual love, there is abandonment in The Two Character Play of quite a different kind as children learn to face an existence without parents who have by circumstance or deliberate choice left brother and sister to care for one another. Whether its rejection, desertion or even renunciation – leaving open the possibility that the children rather than the parents are beyond help – there are depths of betrayal that seep through every scene and fundamentally damage any form of rational relationship with other people.
At the beginning of the play Felice must tell his sister that the entire Theatre Company has left the tour and the decision to perform to the audience regardless is the motor of The Two Character Play, something Felice chooses from his own repertoire as it can be performed (somewhat chaotically) without help. This mirrors the plight of the characters in Felice’s drama who feel confounded by the contempt of the townspeople and are left to themselves, even receiving food deliveries from behind a closed door. This lack of external human contact in both scenarios only increases the disorientating effect Williams creates and the heightened delusions of all four creations where reality becomes something that is described like a faded memory but never experienced.
All of these theatrical devices can feel quite alienating in a play that is ultimately rather circular in that by the end nothing has really changed except that Felice’s two-character play has been performed to a real or imagined audience depending on your perspective. Yates’s production for the Hampstead Theatre amplifies that estrangement, eschewing a period setting to adopt a variety of technical tricks that underscore the performative nature of these creations.
Designer Rosanna Vize has created a ramshackle backstage / on-stage area, a deconstructed set that serves as a multi-playing space in which the various sides of Felice and Clare can interact. Alone, they must construct the small domestic home used for their play by physically dragging walls and furniture into position, while around them the detritus of their ‘real’ lives in bin bags of clothes, random pieces of furniture and spotlights the pair can use to play and to create.
But the real separation from other Williams adaptations come in the use of technology. Borrowing a little from Jamie Lloyd and a little from Ivo van Hove, Yates employs a video camera to capture ‘unofficial’ moments between the siblings but shots deliberately set-up by one or other of them and projected onto the rear wall of the stage to emphasise their eternal performance – even as themselves they appear to be adopting affected behaviours or personas that prevents them from finding real truth in their relationship. Similarly, freestanding microphones are used to deliver parts of the backstage sections – see Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull – which only increases Felice and Clare’s self absorption and total dislocation from anything but their own form of reality.
It is interesting work from video designer Akhila Krishnan and sound designer Dan Balfour who together with Vize create a space that is filled with the apparatus of storytelling and the possibility of escape to other places using these tools, but a place that Clare states, ‘so it’s a prison, this last theatre of ours’. Williams specifies a broken space which this Hampstead production delivers, teetering on the edge of both interpretations of the play, just enough reality to suggest a theatre yet sufficient emptiness to imply a no man’s land with nothing but silence and darkness beyond its walls.
It makes the production intriguing if not entirely satisfying. Partly this is Williams’s own experimentation with theatrical form, layering these parallel and intersecting narratives in such a way that the engineering is almost more notable that the play itself, and certainly Williams makes no attempt to encourage pathos in our experience of these characters. As elaborate and deserving of censure as some of his earlier creations had been, there is always great tragedy in their delusion and although Blanche or Brick behave inappropriately, Williams finds sympathy for their plight. But not so with Clare and Felice, we observe them but we do not feel for them.
Yates heightens some of this detachment, partly with the equipment that hones in on their absurdity if not their souls and partly in the tone he selects for the two interlocking aspects of the narrative. The play-within-a-play is purposefully and effectively exaggerated, adopting the traditional Southern accents we expect from a Williams piece and making the homespun scenario knowingly poor, as though Clare and Felice are substandard actors going through the motions. The backstage sections have greater melodrama to draw out the monstrous Whatever Happened to Baby Jane qualities of these eternal duelists enjoying their game-playing cruelties.
Kate O’Flynn’s Clare is a rather remote figure, fragile of course as Williams’s heroines tend to be, but also certain of herself, a strong-minded woman with expectations befitting – at least in her own consideration – her rank as lead actor in the touring company. There is something of the diva about Clare, certainly a distorted image of herself but Williams jumbles this up with sibling rivalry, the make-believe world that she permanently cohabits with Felice and a deep, almost pathological fear of being alone. O’Flynn finds all of these nuances and while we’re never asked to understand or even really to believe in Clare, there are plenty of layers in this performance.
Likewise Zubin Varla – so recently seen in a rehearsed reading of Name, Place, Animal, Thing – brings his usual gravitas to Felice, a creation with a tendency to fuss and flap as he multitasks as actor, director and wearied stage manager for the company. Much of his anguish comes from preparing for his sister and ensuring the conditions are set for her performance with Varla onstage while the audience take their seats. But there is a similar monstrous ego at play, and Felice’s evident resentment that his play is being cut pits the siblings against each other in a complex battle of wills that is mutually destructive and supportive.
Yates’s production of The Two Character Play is quite busy with lots of activities, movements and techniques applied to almost every moment, mixing straight-forward and heightened realities with a full staging, the stripped back emphasis that microphones bring, video footage and cinematic influences in visuals and lighting denoting melodrama and occasionally noir. This is a writer experimenting with different forms and while it is hard to agree with Williams’s own assessment that The Two Character Play is an equal of Streetcar, this rare revival proves an interesting addition to works that reassess Williams’s impact as a dramatists – an intellectual exercise if not an emotive one.
The Two Character Play is at Hampstead Theatre until 28 August with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog