Tag Archives: American drama

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


The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre

Night of the Iguana - Noel Coward Theatre (by Brinkhoff Moegenberg)

The Night of the Iguana rounds off what has been a fascinating mini season of American drama in London in which the lesser known works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams have appeared alongside and been treated with the same reverence as their most famous plays. Williams in particular is rarely out of fashion and recent productions have shed new light on the depth and quality of his writing. The Glass Menagerie transferred from Watford Palace to the Arcola Theatre, recasting the struggling Wingfields as an African-American family while at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Theatre Clywd’s vibrant production of Orpheus Descending breathed life into this underappreciated work.

Fringe and regional theatre is in love with Tennesse Williams at the moment, a further one-act double bill to come at the King’s Head Theatre as part of its Southern Belles season later this month, but there’s also a big West End revival this summer that’s not be missed. The Noel Coward Theatre has lured Clive Owen back to the stage for the first time in 18 years to play another messed-up character called Larry in The Night Of the Iguana, often described as Williams’s “last great play” based on his own short-story written in 1946.

Williams brings together an assorted collection of personalities who under normal circumstances would never form a connection and only through travel can ever really be thrown together in such an intimate setting; Larry Shannon the feverish former-priest turned tour guide stricken with panic attacks, the sexually predatory widow Maxine Faulk who owns the hotel, Hannah Jelkes the sedate New England artist and her verse-writing grandfather Nonno trying to write his final poem, all set for collision course as a physical and emotional storm brews between them.

Described by the playwright as a story about “how to live beyond despair and still live”, there is a sense in James Macdonald’s production of various strands coming to an end, of the conclusion of a  particular chapter in the characters’ lives as they arrive at the ramshackle Mexican hotel on the hill. By the conclusion of the play the life they have known before will have ended, and a new (not necessarily) better phase will begin. This focus on endings is multi-various, it is the end of the holiday season in Mexico where Maxine’s former life has ended with the death of her much-older husband Frank. When Larry appears at the “end of his rope” what follows explores the end of road for him in particular as he experiences the end of both his faith and his desire.

Through these various interconnections Williams’s concept of spiritual endings plays out across the story using the idea that both sex and religion can be a salvation as well as the ultimate destructive force. So, like the captured iguana of the title, there is a contained wildness in all of these characters who in this transitory place away from their real lives will come to a kind of reckoning within themselves and because of themselves. Macdonald’s production brings an intense slow-burn effect to the competing forces of life and death that drive the play, giving Williams time to weave his magic and the result is compelling and satisfying.

There are plenty of plays that never justify a three-hour runtime, but James Macdonald’s production has an enthralling quality that keeps momentum in a story with relatively little plot, most of which remains in the background as different conversations slowly reveal the backstories and viewpoint of the guests, focusing on a faltering and unlikely connection between polar opposites Larry and  Hannah. But through these repeatedly broken conversations, interrupted by the encroaching outside world of passing tourists, Larry’s busload of angry passengers and the natural environment, Macdonald draws out strands of  loneliness and isolation for two people entering middle age, losing the freedom of their youth and living unmarried beyond normal social expectations.

An experienced director of American drama who’s worked extensively on Broadway, Macdonald knows well how to marshal these long discursive plays. As with Annie Baker’s John and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – both of which Macdonald has directed in the UK in the last two years  – he is particularly attuned to the subtle changes of tone in the writing that slowly reposition the emotional direction of a scene, knowing precisely when and how to emphasise the small crescendos of drama and subsequent calm in each Act, building the layers to create a powerful and climatic overall effect that changes the characters’ lives unalterably as the curtain comes down.

Unlike more recent stripped back productions this is a bold, almost cartoon-like depiction of Mexico with its simple guest huts, backdrop of rockery and plants, and roped staircase carved into the hillside. Night of the Iguana talks about life having a “realistic and a fantastic level” realised through Rae Smith’s hyper-real and unchanging set where every conversation takes place, so the stage is filled with ephemera that it doesn’t really need. The props and scenery look pretty, creating an idea of the alfresco beauty and wildness of Central America that unleashes and reflects Larry’s turmoil, but it’s also a bit heavy-handed in its suggestion of claustrophobia, a distraction from the intensity of the conversations that the actors and Macdonald have to work against rather than within.

But this they do superbly. We have certain expectations of Williams’s characters, they are often fragile, repressed and trapped in their own lives, unable to overcome the limited expectations of society that forces them to cage the natural passion they can barely contain. Williams tends to be more critical of men than women, burying themselves temporarily in alcohol and lust until the pressure and emptiness of their encounters breaks them into conformity. We see this in Summer and Smoke as doctor John seeks solace from the pain of being alive in the local club, a desperate love for his neighbour Alma crushed by the increased numbing of his emotional and sexual life.

Here, Larry starts the play sullied by his many encounters with very young women on his tour and during his single year as a working priest. Recently deflowering a 16-year old who’s now obsessed with him, Larry is bent on self-destruction, a figure loathsome both to the audience and himself. Clive Owen’s performance is full of nervous energy as the strung-out and anxious Larry treads around his own imminent breakdown for most of the play. The nervy disposition he suggests as his unhappy tour group endlessly blast the bus horn, meets a rising panic, hoping that a few days of recuperation at the hotel will soothe him all the while knowing deep down that he is trapped there.

Everyone in Williams’s plays is seeking some kind of salvation and purification, and Owen’s Larry needs it more than most as the weakness of his flesh collides against his version of Christianity that sent him fleeing from the unpalatably mild view of God in the American church. His Old Testament belief in the power of the deity, expressed through the raging violence of tropical storms, entirely reflects the weather-like nature of his own moods – a pattern of behaviour in which a passion for young women clouds his judgement with a violent aftermath.

In a superb return to the stage, Owen’s Larry is a haunted man, pursued by his “spook”, a kind of depression or devil that he can never escape. As his breakdown advances and he waits for “the click” in his head like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to restore rationality, Larry seeks solace in his growing friendship with Hannah, a need to be understood by another person that is desperate but never pitiable. Larry is an unforgivable character and Owen embraces his many sides while still retaining a humanity that makes his need for someone to truly see him rather than his office one of the most engaging aspects of the play. What we see in Owen’s performance is the slow entrapment and reduction of the wild iguana, the taming of a man’s spirit and, like many a Williams hero, the acceptance of a conventional, emotionally confined future, the easy option.

By contrast the leading female characters in Williams’s plays have a towering inner strength that only grows within the crisis of the play, leaving them free to become another kind of being despite their seemingly fragile exterior shell. The chameleonic powers of Leah Williams have delivered some exceptional performances in recent years and here she adopts the saintly placidity of the hustler-artist Hannah Jelkes, travelling the world by selling art to fund her adventures. The unrufflable and saint-like demeanour is reflected in Williams’s carefully controlled refined New England accent, suggesting a woman whose physical passions are almost non-existent in an life driven by intellectual and artistic pursuits that have a spiritual gratification. Slowly she comes into view, the prim restraint replaced with a clear compassion for lonely middle-aged men and a surprising non-judgemental worldliness that makes her the ideal confident and the only person who can bring respite to Larry.

Williams’s Hannah has purity and serenity but there is a resourcefulness in her, a deep-rooted fight that prevents anyone taking advantage of her. Her conversations with Larry are brief at first, invested with so much potential chemistry from Williams and Owen that they tantalise the audience with what’s to come. When they finally speak at length in the long third act it is enthralling. Both actors are mesmerising as the conversation morphs constantly from a polite friendship to something more complex, an almost spiritual connection loaded with unfulfillable desire. Hannah’s long monologue about her romantic encounters is delivered in pin-dropping silence by Williams lost in the memory of the past and while her current existence also ends in this shabby hotel, unlike Larry you know she will continue to grow, to emerge stronger and fuller for the experience.

As hotel-owner Maxine, Anna Gunn is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and before the play begins has determined that Larry will stay with her. Maxine may be openly provocative and blunt, but Gunn also shows her hidden vulnerability and a subtly in her dealings with Larry, knowing not to push him too quickly. There seems to be genuine affection for her late husband despite her dismissal of their marriage in public, and, as with the other characters, while Maxine is not exactly likeable, Gunn suggests a loneliness under the surface, a determination to keep others at arms-length emotionally.

Like the tethered iguana, James Macdonald’s fascinating production shifts and bucks at its restraints until the characters can no longer contain their inner selves. We could do without the comedy Germans and perhaps a slightly less cliched way to present the Mexican staff could have been found, a set of Williams’s creations that feel awkward in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, gripping performances from Clive Owen and Lia Williams, and Macdonald’s slow-burn direction allows Williams’s writing to cast its spell.

Night of the Iguana is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 28 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Glass Menagerie – Arcola Theatre

The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre

“The tyranny of women” is at the centre of Tennessee Williams first and most autobiographical play. Every time audiences see this work about family, memory and the cost of self-determination, new layers are revealed. Now, in a co-production with the Watford Palace, the Arcola Theatre has redefined Williams’s work for the twenty-first century by shifting the action to an African American household in the heart of St Louis. If this concept sounds familiar its because the Young Vic has successfully applied the same treatment to Arthur Miller in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production of Death of a Salesman which opened to rave reviews. The Arcola’s version of The Glass Menagerie is sure to do the same.

A recent, and very classy, revival directed by John Tiffany played at the Duke of York’s a couple of years ago, but Femi Elufowoju jr’s new production uses the intimacy of the Arcola to set Williams’s seminal drama in an entirely new context without changing a word. Like Elliot and Cromwell’s Death of a Salesman, transposing the characters to a different type of family, entirely redraws the context in which they live. The poverty of the Wingfields, the deluded nature of their dreams and Amanda’s almost manic desperation for her daughter to find a suitable husband are further tinged with impossibility when the first tentative moves towards racial and gender equality were still decades away.

The context of Williams very domestic play is significant and while the action barely leaves the Wingfield home except to a small terrace on the fire escape, the external world of 1930s America keeps bursting in. Within the action of the play we see a continual battle between memories, dreams and reality in which each of the characters tries to come to terms with the limitations of their current lives. In one sense they all seek the ideals of the American Dream, hoping for success, happiness and family contentment that society urges them to attain, yet the truth of life in St Louis in 1937 is far uglier – Tom works in a relatively junior position in the local warehouse, while his shy and emotionally broken sister Laura has only secretarial work or marriage before her.

The great tragedy of The Glass Menagerie is how hard and fruitlessly these characters struggle to shake off the ties of the past, their abandonment by the father and husband that matriarch Amanda still idolises and her insistence on living with the customs and manners of twenty years before. Just as past and future, dreams and reality pull against one another, so too do the masculine and feminine energies of the play; in Williams famous line it is Amanda’s emotional tyranny over her children that shapes the drama, driving Tom’s need to escape her suffocation with nights at the movies, drunkenness and a flirtation with the Merchant Navy, which acts in perfect balance with the soft, quiet delicacy of Laura’s unassuming gentleness.

What is clear from Elufowoju jr’s production is the overall fragility of the world in which these characters exist; one wrong move and jobs can be lost leaving a family destitute, but they must also tread on emotional eggshells around one another, afraid to speak their minds and give voice to their true aspirations. Amanda’s rather nervy state of mind forces her children to hide truths about their lives and while she can be fearsome, nagging or shouting them into submission, this production makes clear that these behaviours come from a place of fear, one which is amplified for an African American family trying to retain respectability in a town that would never notice if they fall.

Rebecca Brower’s set does wonders with the tiny Arcola space, using the main stage as the Wingfield sitting and dining rooms that attempts refinement, while adding fire-escape staircases to utilise the permanent balcony which doubles as the vital terrace where Tom escapes to look at the moon and listen to life-giving music that emanates from the Palace dancehall across the road. Brower neatly implies the close tenement living with washing lines and other people’s windows visible on the rear wall, while the main room is a small space in which the family also sleep on rolled-out mattresses placed on the floor. The set carefully facilitates the physically confines of the Wingfield home and the emotional combustion that erupts between its three residents.

What Elufowoju jr does so well is to develop and manage the growing intensity as the action unfolds. Williams sets this up as a memory play with Tom as the conscious narrator as well as one of the lead characters. The creation of atmosphere is strongly conveyed, as Michael Abubakar’s Tom directly addresses the audience, warmly drawing us into the narrative. Arnim Friess’s lighting design creates the feel of sultry summer nights out on the fire escape, while inside the electrically lit living area burns bright until the pivotal power-cut. There is a feel of desperation and hope of a better future that Elufowoju jr sets up and knocks down as the action unfolds, using Yvonne Gilbert’s selection of nostalgic jazz music to underline both the yearning for freedom as snatches of tunes pervade the night air but also to represent the weight of the past that shackles the characters to their less gilded fate.

Lesley Ewen’s Amanda Wingfield is a complex ball of anger and frustration with her children, while reliant on the appearance of a girlish supplication that is far from a real reflection of her personality. As she describes her heyday and the arrival of numerous “gentleman callers” Ewen flirts and wheedles, imprisoned in the happy memory of her ultimate self. She falls back on those characteristics when Jim comes for dinner in Act Two, fanning herself elaborately, giggling and trying to convey a picture of sophistication and poise where only desperation remains. But beneath the all-too cracked façade, Ewen’s Amanda is a tigress, dominating her beleaguered family and unleashing furious tirades that thunder through their tiny home.

She is a frustrating character, difficult to like, full of self-delusion about her beauty and her worth, whose personality is designed to grate. Yet, Ewen unveils the psychological state that has created the monster in front of us, and in doing so renders her a little more sympathetic. Amanda may bare her teeth – a gesture Ewen introduces to reveal both determination and a lifetime of painful disappointment – but she is fragile, abandoned by the husband she managed to catch and what small gift she once possessed (or thought she did) for controlling the world.

Abubakar’s Tom is our way into the story, a frustrated hard worker forced into the man of the house role through circumstances beyond his control. As our narrator, Abubakar’s warm and inviting tone immediately welcomes the audience but also does much to create the tone of the piece, those atmospheric interjections setting the pace and feel of 1930s St Louis as he takes control of the audience’s imagination to set the scene.

Within the story, Tom’s relationship with his family is layered and complex with Abubakar finding a credible duality in his dissatisfied love for his mother and sister, accepting his duty to provide for them while dreaming of a more fulfilling future. The furious encounters with Ewen’s Amanda are particularly well performed as permanent irritation suddenly erupts when the stifling experience of the Wingfield home becomes too much for them. Of all the characters Tom looks most to the future and his need to escape, to change his life, which Abubakar explores so subtly, takes Tom to the bars and cinemas of St Louis, and ultimately to a more callous place with only self-interest and regret.

Naima Swaleh as Laura is certainly as fragile and exposed as her beloved glass ornaments, and despite an early moment of rebellion in which Laura lies about the business course she attends, Swaleh suggests an ephemeral presence, as though the character is made almost transparent by the Amanda’s dominance and Tom’s distraction. Occasionally a little mannered – although arguably the role lends itself to such an interpretation – Swaleh is at her best in the final encounter with Jim, the intensity and pathos of which wins incredible sympathy for a girl with no prospects and only further to fall.

Jim’s arrival is a turning point in the play and finally dispels the illusions of the Wingfield family setting them all on a new path. In Charlie Maher’s performance this takes on extra layers as Jim, a white Irish-American, suddenly lends fresh perspective to Williams’s words. Amanda visible falters as he appears in the dining room and despite attempts to resurrect her plan the impossibility of a relationship with Laura in this time and place is clear.

But the contrast between Jim and the Wingfield’s experience is further elucidated in Maher’s performance. Jim – like Biff in Death of a Salesman – is a former High School hero whose subsequent life has never measured up, yet his first conversation with Tom is full of arrogance, bravado even salesmanship. When he accidentally leaves devastation in his wake, the audience knows that the white boy with every privilege and opportunity will also be fine, whereas the Wingfields who struggled for every ounce of respectability ultimately have no rights or history to support them – despite Amanda’s obsession with the past, it cannot save their future.

Elufowoju jr’s production is fascinating with the tense and vibrant second half in particular proving both gripping and illuminating. With a couple more performances before Wednesday’s official press night, there’s really little to do except plug deeper into the family connections in the first few scenes. Williams does a lot of the work for you in The Glass Menagerie creating a combustible environment and unhappy but somewhat compassionate characters about to hit the point of no return, but Elufowoju jr’s has reframed the play entirely, showing us that for the African American Wingfields clinging to what society they can the tyranny of one woman is disastrous.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Arcola Theatre until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Our Town – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Our Town - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

For the last few months, London has been obsessed with the classic American drama and in an attempt to diversify, producers are taking risks on a greater variety of plays, risks that are paying off. While Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman are frequently revived the fresh vision of the Old and Young Vic respectively have reorientated our perspective on these famous pieces, while lesser-known work including The Price and The American Clock also made recent appearances in the West End. The Tennessee Williams back-catalogue has been equally well-plundered with a very nice revival of Orpheus Descending arriving at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week, a new West End version of Night of the Iguana in June, an evening of one act dramas at the King’s Head in July and next week a new version of The Glass Menagerie set in an African-American household.

Of course Williams and Miller’s fame and reputation will always sell tickets, even for their less illustrious work, but other writers can be a harder sell, so it’s interesting that the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has chosen to revive Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town which, despite its Pullitzer Prize, is not so well known in the UK. Wilder is one of the most prolific American writers you’ve probably never heard of, penning numerous plays and novels as well as a single film between 1926 and 1973, earning him a total of three Pullitzers – two for playwriting and one for a 1927 novel.

It’s certainly an interesting choice for the Open Air Theatre in what promises to be a season of interesting choices, not least Jamie’s Lloyd’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in August. Our Town is a both a strange and almost poetic experience, described as a meta-theatrical work, it uses the conventions of theatre to examine everyday life in small-town America while simultaneously commenting on the limited nature and understanding of human existence. Guided by the “Stage Manager” who directly addresses the audience, dispassionately narrating both the lives of the characters in the years between 1901 and 1913, and the geographical context of the fictional town that pointedly limits their entire existence.

Directed by Ellen McDougall, this new production takes a little while to get used to, particularly as Wilder’s style is to tell not show. The Stage Manager character is a calm and authoritative guide, but deliberately has no distinct personality of her own, she’s not trying to sell the brilliance of the town or in any way criticise the community Our Town reveals, but like the Chorus in Henry V, her purpose is to set the scene, asking the audience to imagine the layout of the town and passing of the years as she guides us through the three thematic Acts – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity.

Although much later than Wilder, the style is reminiscent of several films in the late 1940s and early 1950s that used voice-over narration to control the story, largely in film noir but occasionally in comedies as well. Equally, Lars von Trier’s Dogville comes to mind – which also used a narrator – in which the activities of a town are inferred rather than shown, and McDougall’s production is a similarly and purposefully alienating experience. As with these examples, Wilder doesn’t want the audience to become too embroiled in the minutia of living, the characters are deliberately thin and cipher-like, and the narrator is a device employed to keep us on the outside of the play. Instead, the cumulative and overall effect of Wilder’s play is to make the audience question the value of living quietly “two-by-two” as everyone else does and what more there could be.

The strength of the Open Air Theatre’s production is in its slow-build effect, that over the course of 2 hours reaches a meaningful conclusion. The final Act is by far the best, set several years after the previous events as the dead reflect on their former existence and the freedom that comes from no longer being alive. A new member unexpectedly joins their ranks who clings to the idea of their old life, desperate to go back and relive one day, despite advice to the contrary. For the first time, at this specific moment, McDougall and designer Rosie Elnile introduce a small detailed room, a confined space that quickly feels more like a trap than the happy memory the character hoped for.

Wilder deliberately conjures almost everything the audience needs to know within the text, so throughout the play very little staging is required. Elnile has filled the stage at the Open Air Theatre with raked seating, a curious decision that distracts from anything else and makes it far harder for the audience to imagine the store fronts, houses and hills that the Stage Manager asks us to picture. Its purpose, assumedly, is twofold, to reflect our own lives back at us, a mirror of similar flip-up seats to the ones we’ve paid to sit in, and possibly also to imply the 2000 other residents of Grover’s Corner referenced in the story.

Throughout the play, characters sit in different seats at various levels of the seating rig, make use of two small balconies to suggest windows and the aisles as though coming down to breakfast. It’s all been clearly choreographed by McDougall to spread the non-speaking actors around the scaffold-like construction to physically separate them and us from the action. But it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination to fill in the gaps and, as you’re trying to adjust to Wilder’s style in the 90-minute first half that combines Acts I and II, it dwarfs the scenes on the stage in front, so rather than facilitate the play the design is more often at odds with it.

Other approaches are less intrusive, and the performers wear modern clothes in a variety of bright colours apart from the narrator in black. At the start the actors line-up and the Stage Manager introduces them by their real name stating which character they will perform – this and the lack of period setting support Wilder’s desire not to immerse the audience in the story, actively preventing the theatrical illusion from taking hold from the start to ensure that we see ourselves  and the broader themes about life and community reflected on the stage.

As the Stage Manager Laura Rogers is a friendly but authoritative narrator. Taking Wilder’s cue, Rogers makes no obvious comment on the town and its people, the lines are delivered without sentiment or obvious allegiance to the area or any people as though the Stage Manager is a detached observer factually describing what she sees. Rogers engages well with the audience – the only character to do so directly – and is our tour guide around the world of the play, stopping scenes, creating new locations and occasionally playing some of the supernumeraries including the doddery owner of the soda shop.

We are not particularly expected to invest in the life of the townsfolk which is a tricky position for the rest of the cast. Their purpose is to represent the rolling nature of life, of births, marriages and deaths, of getting-up to make the family breakfast everyday for forty year while waiting for the paperboy. Nonetheless, they must imply the reality of lives they represent and that there are real people living like this all the time who, as Wilder suggests, are so drawn into the routines and expectations of society that they are perhaps unable to see life in perspective and, separately, its value.

Nominally, the audience follows two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs; Karl Collins and Pandora Colin as Dr and Mrs Gibb are pillars of the town and good friends with neighbours Thusitha Jayasundera and Tom Edden as Mrs and Editor Webb, the owner of the local newspaper. Together they are the picture of ordinary American society in the early twentieth century, the men work in respectable jobs, the women cook and raise the children, normal, unremarkable, decent families ordered by an externally-imposed structure to their day, none of them thinking beyond the preparations for dinner or disapproving local gossip about the drunken choir master (an amusing Peter Hobday).

We follow their children George Gibb played by Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry as Emily Webb who share homework tips as teenagers before eventually marrying. Both convey the innocent enthusiasm of the school child morphing into shy lovers-to-be. Hughes has a particularly good scene with Edden as a future son-in law asks advice about marriage from Mr Webb on his wedding day, working through the doubts. Henry’s Emily comes into her own in Act III as the story takes her character in a different direction which allows her greater time to reflect on her life in which Henry suggests well both the enthusiasm for it and the pain it causes.

The staging choices in Our Town do impede the action to a degree, making it harder for the audience to imagine the streets and countryside that the Stage Manager describes to us, and given the backdrop of Regent’s Park it seems a shame to cover it up. All the actors have microphones but with so large a seating rig it’s not always instantly obvious who is speaking as the sound comes from the side speakers, and some of the general town scenes become lost. Over time, and especially by Act III, Our Town does start to work its magic and the audience sees Grover’s Corner as a place people live all their lives, where even the hooting railroad becomes nothing more than a symbol of freedom that no one ever uses.

With two more previews to go, Our Town has a little work to do to find a clearer rhythm for Acts I and II, working within the confines of the slightly restrictive staging they have chosen. It was a cold May evening and a number of people departed at the interval, but this production of Our Town is still a worthwhile and interesting experience. Wilder’s writing feels as fresh and innovative as it must have done in the 1930s and taking an early season risk on a less conventional play ultimately pays off. Most importantly, this new desire to look beyond the well-known classics is creating opportunities to rethink our relationship with the theatre past and, through new approaches to diversity and inclusion, reimagine them for the future.

Our Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Orpheus Descending – Menier Chocolate Factory

Orpheus Descending - Theatre Clywd

The rediscovery and restaging of the lesser known works of major playwrights has been something of a trend in London theatres recently. Duncan MacMillan and Ian Rickson’s critically acclaimed production breathed new life into Ibsen’s Rosmersholm with its modernist female-lead and political storyline that found new resonances, making a reasonable case for the play’s inclusion amongst Ibsen’s finest writing. Last year Rebecca Frecknall and Patsy Ferran did the same for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, but despite the many good things about Tamara Harvey’s new production of Orpheus Descending it’s never going to be considered a neglected masterpiece.

Yet even a middling Tennessee Williams play is better than most, and this one still has plenty to say about sacrifice and suffocation in small-town America. Written in 1957, this is mid-period Williams, it comes after greats such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and immediately followed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but before Sweet Bird of Youth and Night of the Iguana a revival of which opens at the Noel Coward in June. Orpheus Descending didn’t last long on its debut and the play has a number of structural problems which even Harvey’s fine production cannot entirely overcome.

With the entirety of the play set in the Torrance store, much of the action happens off-stage either in other locations or between scenes, so what the audience hears is either character memories or town gossip which can make the action feel a little static or, in places, too fast moving. What set Williams’s greatest works apart is the family setting in which long-buried tensions and frustrations are triggered and released by the catalytic action of the play, examined through long character-driven exchanges. Additional context has happened before and around the action, but Williams ensures the storm gathers and breaks in front of us.

Orpheus Descending has elements of that but with the key focus on the disconcerting arrival of a handsome stranger causing chaos in the town, Williams is only partially successful. His protagonist here Valentine Xavier, known as Val, is the agent of change despite his intention to live a cleaner life now he’s 30. His arrival is a chance for the townsfolk to exorcise a past act – the burning of the wine garden and orchard which resulted in the death of Lady’s father – and to confront the truth about its consequences many years later. Val may exacerbate this knowledge, but he has no connection to it which reduces some of the play’s tension.

Val and Lady (daughter of the deceased owner of the wine garden, derogatorily referred to as “The Wop” throughout) have most of the conversation but with less than four months acquaintance by the end of the play there are no damaging secrets or withheld frustrations between them that energise Williams’s better works. Val’s travelling loner status and wild past is interesting, but he lacks the raw jealous control of Stanley Kowalski or the stunted boyhood bitterness of Brick Pollitt that reverberates around the family unit caught helplessly in their self-destructive force. Instead, Williams has to place these legacy resentments and secrets in the hands of characters we hardly get to see, lessening their impact even in the play’s dramatic and revelatory final scene.

But Orpheus Descending is by no means a bad play, and Harvey’s production which opened at Theatre Clwyd in April, makes the best of it with a well-paced ¾ round production that focuses on Williams’s engaging character studies and the impressionistic sketch of a small town full of fears and repressed emotion. Jonathan Fensom takes a simple approach to setting, and rather than creating a general store full of stock and a shop counter instead offers a scattering of fold-up chairs and a few tables to give the look of a café or outside picnic area. Serving as the shop doorway, the rear wall is dominated by a large wooden archway with slightly singed boards – quietly referencing the fire at the Moon Lake wine garden that took Lady’s father’s life. This obscures the “Confectionary” that Lady is adding to the building, and the town beyond where so much of the drama takes place away from the audience’s view.

One of Harvey’s most intriguing inventions is to use the character of Uncle Pleasant as a kind of Chorus, echoing the Greek legend on which the story is based. An almost mute character in Williams’s original, a local “Conjure Man” who frightens some of the more highly-strung ladies but used to imply freedom from the oppressive rules of this exclusionist and racist town that resists all outsiders, Val included. Harvey has given Valentine Hanson’s Uncle Pleasant carefully selected passages from the stage directions to read at various points through the play, almost as though the character is “conjuring” the store and its people as a moral warning to the viewer. It’s an interesting and welcome technique that adds additional layers to the production, although perhaps is used too sparingly to create a sense of inevitability to the same extent as the narrated structure of Greek legends do.

The repression of wildness and its consequences is a key theme, one which Williams handles with particular skill. The notion of the store is juxtaposed as a metaphor for commercial exchange repeatedly referenced in the play, and something which Harvey’s version draws attention to, the idea of people being bought and sold in marriage and other forms of oppressive relationship. Lady is central to this and right at the start of the play townswoman Beulah (Catrin Aaron) explains to the audience that store owner Jabe “bought her, when she was a girl of eighteen! He bought her and bought her cheap.” Later in the play, during a slightly rushed and unlikely conversation with David Cutrere who left her to marry a richer woman Lady tells him “You sold yourself. I sold myself. You was bought. I was bought.”  Even Val says “I’m telling you, lady, there’s people bought and sold in this world like carcasses of hogs in butcher shops!”

This is designed to show us the psychological state of many of the characters, limited by the confines of their location and broken down by lives they never wanted. While women like Beulah and Dolly (Laura Jane Matthewson) are happier with their lot, the three more central characters – Val, Lady and Carol Cutrere – are caged animals like many a Williams character, unable to tame their natural wildness however many years they live in confinement. Carol is perhaps the most tragic of these with Jemima Roper at first suggesting a woman much more at ease with who and what she is, unashamed and almost proud of the stares and the gossip her appearance and behaviour elicits. Carol is the only character to be friendly to Uncle Pleasant, while openly and lustfully pursuing Val throughout the play.

Yet, Roper allows us to see the vulnerability and essential fragility in Carol as the action unfolds, explaining that her over-made-up appearance is a mask of expectation, a self-proclaimed “exhibitionist” oppressed by the family name and acting out for effect. But Roper shows us that Carol’s bravado, the drink, the partying, the men on Cyprus Hill are manifestations of her broken spirit, the obsession with Val and her increasing desperation has a real tragedy in Roper’s performance that underscores Williams’s core theme about the artificial restrictions places on people not built for ordinary society.

Hattie Morahan’s Lady is in a slightly different kind of cage, one she built herself by aligning with the much older Jabe. At the start of the play her strength and determination are emphasised, there’s a no-nonsense feel to her that seems practical and different to the other women in the town, unaffected by Val’s handsome face. Lady sits on the boundary of insider and outsider status, still seen as the daughter of someone who didn’t belong but through sheer determination forced herself into the town’s structure through marriage and in maintaining the focal-point store.

Yet, as the play unfolds, Morahan allows this resignation to slowly unpeel, revealing a woman more deeply scarred by the death of her father and the former relationship that would have offered a happier life. The early conversations with Val are played as two equals, employer and employee without an underlying sexual tension which suggests Lady’s emotional centre is more tightly controlled, that she’s not looking for an escape route. Morahan instead implies that the passion between them is more spontaneous, their eventual chemistry growing out of being listened to and respected for the first time in years, which unleashes a torrent (linking to her married surname) of emotion and a trembling hope that makes the finale both poignant and powerful. It’s an approach that yields rewards in Morahan’s interesting and meaningful interpretation of a woman rediscovering her spirit.

Seth Numrich is an experienced Williams leading man, having previously starred alongside Kim Cattrall in The Old Vic’s Sweet Bird of Youth, and his Val finds himself at a crucial decision point in his life. Having just turned 30, he’s trying to turn his back on his former fast-paced lifestyle and unlike Carol struggles less with the desire to find something more wholesome. Numrich presents a calm figure, detached from those around him seeking a kind of peace. His chemistry with Lady develops slowly, as friendship becomes something else. It may not be a grand burning passion, but the steadier coming together of two damaged souls.

But as the play unfolds his old life starts to call him back, releasing he cannot so easily switch-off the old desires and struggling to transition to the better, more stable man he wants to be. Numrich’s finest moment is later in the play at a crucial point of revelation, one which Val embraces with genuine delight, finally offered the chance, albeit momentarily, to be all the things he hoped for, a scene that Numrich suggests is crucial to the psychology of Val, a traveller looking for direction.

Following Harvey’s recent West End success with Home, I’m Darling, this production of Orpheus Descending similarly examines the one-size-fits-all role women have been expected to play in society and how damaging that can be. The chilly auditorium may reflect Lady’s frequent complaints about the coldness in the store after dark – the Menier perhaps making it a little too immersive – but this well-performed and considered production is a consistently interesting and valuable experience. It’s not Williams’s best work by any means but the complexity of his character portraits and its comment on “them and us” attitudes still hold considerable meaning for modern audiences.

Orpheus Descending is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6 July with tickets from £40. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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