Tag Archives: Tennessee Williams

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – Charing Cross Theatre

With over 30 full length plays and more than double that for one act shows, it is surprising that so few of Tennessee Williams’s works are ever performed. With most of the attention focused on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – which will receive another revival in a couple of months time at the Almeida – there is often little space for the wider canon. In recent years the ‘rediscovery’ of Summer and Smoke and an impressive production of The Night of the Iguana have awakened an interest in what are considered Williams’s lesser-known major works while the King’s Head Theatre explored identity and desire in some of the shorter pieces under the Southern Belles title, all of which are bringing the writers work to a new audience. Now, Charing Cross Theatre is hoping to do the same for 1962 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore exploring the exploitation of a dying woman grasping for the meaning of her life and refusing to go quietly.

Williams is particularly interested in the dynamics of age, often placing characters with quite different experiences together to understand the nature and physicality of desire between people who are or should be socially estranged. Often, that relationship is presented as an uneven, almost transactional activity in which the older individual is able to feel attractive and satisfied while the younger enjoys their wealth, sexual experience or some reflection of their wilted fame. Blanche Dubois is the most obvious example, enjoying the bodies of much younger men to fulfill a personal craving for youthful ardour, but there is a similar interaction in Sweet Bird of Youth and in Night of the Iguana, although it is an older man pursuing younger women in the latter. There is venality to these relationships but also vulnerability, and Williams’s skill as a writer has always been in revealing the underlying sadness and illusory (or self-delusional) qualities that people cling to when looking for tenderness from a lover.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, written later than these works, in 1962, takes a slightly different perspective, presenting a situation to the audience that remains ambiguous throughout. And Williams plays on the expectations that a wider knowledge of his work will engender, as though the writer is already aware of the preconceptions the audience will bring to a, by now, cliched scenario, allowing him to toy with us as we try to uncover the truth behind the sudden arrival of Chris at the mountaintop villa of Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth.

The play takes place across several scenes, divided neatly into two halves, the first in which Chris is glimpsed briefly as his tattered form is rescued from Sissy’s security dogs and given a place to recuperate. Largely offstage for the first hour of the production,therefore, Chris is defined by his present absence, a character much talked about and the driver of the narrative but barely seen until the second half of the play where the expected and longed-for conversation takes place between the young man and the leading lady. A fairly standard device used to generate tension and energy for the eventual confrontation, Williams manages this really well, giving the idea of Chris a tangible impact on these early scenes that builds anticipation as we wait to see what his intentions really are.

But Williams also uses the two concepts of Chris – the idea of him and his real self – to consider how reputation is formed and the, sometimes, substantial gap between external perception and reality. We see this again and again in Williams’s work as individuals crash against the idea of themselves that they project into their own heads and the way they are really seen, often leading to cataclysmic outcomes that capsize their lives. But here Williams is using the same concept to do something else, examining misinformation and the ways in which assumptions are created and sustained without checking the facts for ourselves – a notion that feels especially pertinent to contemporary celebrity whose famed attributes are not always deserved.

And while Williams is building Sissy’s assumptions of Chris, he is also hoodwinking the audience into replicating her mindset, preparing us to foresee the same plot twists as his characters do. Williams does this through the character known as the ‘Witch of Capri’, an old frenemy of Sissy’s who arrives to spread gossip about the young man she terms the ‘Angel of Death’ who talks of the many old, rich women he has attached himself to in the final months of their life with the sole intention of stealing their money. This becomes a salacious piece of gossip between the women but also a dire warning to Sissy to protect herself from the amorality of a young gigolo stalking society and newspapers columns prepared to seduce and dispatch his victims before moving along to the next one.

When the audience and Sissy final meet Chris, Williams immediately muddies the waters however and primed though we are for a rake, what we see is closer to a Christ-like figure who claims to be a kind of palliative care nurse, freely devoting himself to the lonely to help them peacefully on their way. So who is Chris and what are his true intentions? It is this uncertainty that underscores The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore as Williams weighs the scales on both sides, and having fed the audience on Chris’s reputation offers up plenty of questions in the second half of the play. If Chris is using these women, then why does he arrive at the Amalfi coast villa with only a backpack and a single, well-worn outfit, what happened to all the money he must have acquired? And if his form is to seduce, then where is the famous charm and why does he hold back with Sissy?

Against this, Williams looks at mortality and what we chose to leave behind to makes sense of our lives. There are shades of Norma Desmond in the creation of Sissy – who also looks to recapture her vitality with the younger Joe – putting together her masterpiece having all but withdrawn from the real world. Preparing her scattered and verbose memoirs, Sissy is caught up in herself, an idea of her own importance and relevance that leads her to treat her Secretary Ms Black, know as ‘Blackie’, badly and is also dismissive and patronising of her Italian servant. As a result, we don’t immediately and unquestioningly support her, and like Norma, remain open to the reckoning that the playwright has in store.

This Charing Cross Theatre production, directed by Robert Chevara, finds all of these complexities and, unusually, selects an entirely modern setting or at least a boundary -spanning one where smartphones and tablets become the tools of dictation and communication. Generally, Williams’s work can escape its own era and the understanding of human emotion and reaction resonates in any time period, but Chevara could go further in placing the characters in a more contemporary world through the design which is modern but not recognisably twenty-first century. Instead, designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen gives a mixture of periods with 90s minimalist plastic chairs, an early twentieth-century chaise lounge and a 1940s drinks trolley – a mish mash of concepts that reflect Sissy’s long life and acquirement of things but while she is a character who wallows in her past, her social status, location and love of entertaining would imply a responsiveness to trends, not least to reinforce her own taste and relevance to others.

Linda Marlowe’s Sissy finds some of the character’s angles, her petulance and self-absorption that make her irritable with her staff and equally certain that she would be a target for Chris. Marlowe plays the diva well with plenty of bombast and outrage at the incompetence of others, but across almost two hours of performance, Sissy needs more nuance. Partly that is finding a more convincing frailty that overcomes her as the end draws near but also a vulnerability in a woman who is alone but craving notice and company that will make her feel desirable as well as the contradictory fear of that intimacy that works across Sissy’s character – she wants the possibility of something with Chris but is also nervous about giving any of her power and self-possession away. There is clearly more to Sissy than the surface bravado and as death starts to haunt her, her fear of the unknown should make her tremble a little. Marlowe could dig deeper.

Where the really interesting interaction happens is between Lucie Shorthouse’s Blackie and Chris played by Sanee Raval. There is a compelling chemistry there that forms a genuine connection between these characters of equivalent age, which Williams leaves tantalisingly unresolved. But Shorthouse and Raval understand well the ambiguity that the writer builds into this play and use their scenes together to present an alternative perspective on them both – notably the berobed Chris holding his arms wide in a Christ-like supplication, palms turned outwards. The costume designer needs to give Shorthouse more comfortable shoes which seem to visibly pain her throughout, but this is a connection you wish Williams had written more about.

Similarly, Karen Kestelman’s Witch of Capri is a woman we would like to see more of, providing as she does a direct counterpart to Sissy, an older woman with economic freedom and a penchant for younger lovers that mark her as a direct contemporary of Sissy but also an alternative perspective. Kestleman does some good work in providing a few catty exchanges with Sissy, pleased to be the one bringing her useful news about Chris but keen to see her friend fall at the same time but Williams gives her too little stage time to develop.

There is a lot of potential in this play and while it is by no means Williams at his best, the way he draws the audience into certain expectations is extremely skilled, especially as he doesn’t actually dash them only leaves a more open interpretation of character motive. The themes about assumptions, what we leave behind as well as the people prepared to care for us when all the trappings of youth, beauty and influence have gone retain their powerful meaning. This production does’t quite get everything it can from this play, but this is a rare opportunity to see it nonetheless.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 22 October with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

The Glass Menagerie - Duke of York's Theatre

It’s a sign that London theatre is beginning to settle back into its familiar patterns when spring and summer heralds the arrival of American stars keen to make their mark on the West End stage. The last summer before covid it was Sally Field and Bill Pullman in the Old Vic’s All My Sons with Pullman clearly enjoying the experience so much he’s back again, rehearsing with David Harbour for performances of Mad House in late June. Jake Gyllenhaal’s acclaimed Broadway appearance in Sunday in the Park With George was scheduled to transfer in that infamous summer of 2020 while Patti LuPone who came for Marianne Elliott’s Company in 2018 has taken the production back to Broadway with her where it is currently playing.

Now it is the turn of Amy Adams, already an acclaimed and multi Oscar nominated film actor with some notable stage experience in the US, making her West End debut in Jeremy Herrin’s new version of The Glass Menagerie, a play that has been perhaps a little over produced in the UK in recent years with notable versions at the Arcola in 2019 and another starring American actor Cherry Jones also at the Duke of York’s in 2017 making her UK debut as the fragile and affected Amanda Wingfield.

As well as seeing Tennessee Williams’s play with astonishing regularity, its basis in the playwrights own family history and experience is its most commonly reproduced fact, and one that gives added meaning and depth to an elusive and delicately crafted piece about a family trapped between their semi-imagined past and a desired future. But focusing almost exclusively on the semi-autobiographical nature of The Glass Menagerie takes away from its more interesting discussion on the haunting reconstruction of memory and the falsity of both remembrances, and indeed theatre, in bringing to life events and people long since faded away. Herrin’s production steps away from some of the more traditional approaches to applaud Williams’s technique as a conjurer, a stager of scenes that capture the fleeting moment and its cumulative effect.

Herrin through his Headlong Theatre Company tends to think a little differently about the productions he directs, telling immersive stories but with lively approaches to engagement including the use of video screens, music and lighting to enhance or amplify the overall experience and to convey complex messages or political themes as he did recently with Best of Enemies and with challenging, almost confrontational pieces like People, Places and Things and The Nether before that. Two big decisions define this production of The Glass Menagerie, the first slightly adjusts how the story is usually narrated which leads to the second, a design choice derived solely from character and the memory theme.

Williams leaves the storytelling duties to his dramatic proxy Tom Wingfield, son of Amanda and brother to the fragile Laura, who steps out of the story to speak to the audience from a period decades later while also performing as himself in the family scenes he is retelling. Herrin has separated these two versions of the man into two characters, one the older version of Tom casting his mind back and critically reflecting on these crucial months in the small St Lewis flat, while the other is the young, frustrated man of the house desperate to escape the stifling heat of his relations and their expectations of and for him.

The result is rather effective, reducing the burden on a single actor to carry most of the show while able to draw a much starker contrast between the young Tom filled with aspiration for adventure and the man who must live with the consequences of his actions at the end of the play, a broken wretch unable to escape his guilt or to reconcile his disappointment with how his life has turned out. It makes tangible a really quite central theme in Williams’s work – the unceremonious shattering of illusion that leaves characters with nothing but despair, breaking through the romance of their intentions and those wistful hopes of something better, to find only ugliness and disillusion when they are left with the truth.

Like Chekov, Williams’s characters are living in falsely created worlds of their own, ones in which hope is the only thing they have to cling to and is often forcibly taken from them during the course of the play. But while Chekhov creations tend to look towards an imagined brighter future blocked merely by practicality – the need to sell a property or to move to the city – Williams’s characters are mired in their past and dream only of a future that takes them back to happier times. The present never seems to exist for them as they lose themselves in the recollection of halcyon days or seek escape to an unspecified future freedom where they will shake off their own personalities and become different, happier people.

Seeing two version of Tom in this production of The Glass Menagerie shows us the inherent falsity in the notion that the future is a better place than the past. The future Tom is not a man who has found contentment or even confidence through travel or experience, and although he has got what he wanted, it is clear that he has never escaped himself or the man that he used to be. It is a smart and meaningful dramatic choice from Herrin, one that grasps the clues that Williams places throughout the text to expand the character from regretful brother to someone who has lost the essence of himself through searching for it, and comes to view the events of this play as the turning point that continues to torture his conscience.

The second choice that Herrin makes is in designing a more symbolic location for the play by using its theatrical status to create sparse representative spaces for the action where this memory momentarily comes to life. There is a deliberate construct in Williams’s play which is essentially false, a story told from one perspective by a man who was there piecing together fragments of memories which he brings to life before the audience. Williams didn’t chose to write this as a 1930s family whose life occurs in chronological procession but as a casting back from the future with all the overtones of regret and melancholy that this evokes. Nor are we to assume that all the scenes necessarily occurred in the order in which we see them – although some clearly follow on from earlier discussion – but are fragments of experience, of conversations and irritations that occur to Tom while living at home with his mother happening across no specified time period. The events we see created could have occurred across weeks, even years building to a point at which Tom takes decisive action – a culmination we never actually see but only hear about in retrospect.

Herrin uses the ambiguity of structure to create two spaces on stage, a central black platform with minimal props where the family home exists and a surrounding area cluttered with junk, furniture and props that nod to a world beyond the Wingfield establishment while also holding a rehearsal room quality. The actors move between these spaces, sometimes sitting and waiting on the edges for their cue but only truly becoming their characters either standing on or in close proximity to the central platform. Designed by Vicki Mortimer who has considerable experience of creating memory-laden sets (see also Follies), the space is purposefully unremarkable, reflecting the layered fictions within Williams’s structure that make his scenarios real but also figments of imagination at the same time.

This illusory quality is aided by the feeling of the 1960s that runs through the visual style of the show, not only in Edward K. Gibbon’s costumes but also Ash J. Woodward’s video design that creates patterns of refracted colour as though we are seeing these people through a distorting prism of glass – manifest in Mortimer’s sizeable glass cabinet filled with treasures that dominates the stage, the only tangible physical object in their home. It suggests that Tom’s memory is not strong enough to create the 1930s without a little of his present era bleeding in, making him unreliable as a narrator who twists and reforms the past in order to understand his present self. This is reinforced by the decision to physically engage in his own memories, interacting with his mother and sister as though he were there, holding up props and squeezing their shoulders, almost nudging his memories to life and unable to resist returning to those times even in this other guise.

As the older Tom, Paul Hilton has command of this story, welcoming the audience but never allowing them to become to comfortably ensconced. As the action unfolds, Hilton is almost ever present, reacting to activity and often wincing in pain as the past swims before Tom once more, wanting to be part of it all once more but increasingly affected by it. There is anger and resentment in the performance, but also frustration with himself as the events and their outcomes visible nag at his conscience. Tom Glynn-Carney plays his younger self as a distant and irritable figure with some affection for his family but using drink, movies and work as a place to escape the responsibilities that claw at him. Young Tom is rarely sympathetic and sometimes even cruel but Glynn-Carney and Hilton align their approaches to create consistency between the eras.

Adams is a superb Amanda, a more mumsy interpretation of the role than often seen but capturing just the right degree of fussing and largely wholesome parent trying to kickstart her children into life while seeing them as an opportunity to live out her own failed dreams. Amanda is a character that also lives in the past creating further layers of memory within Tom’s singular memory, trapped in her own youthful beauty and abundance of ‘gentleman callers’ that belie the regret she feels about the way her life has panned out. Like the older Tom, Amanda is frustrated by her failure to attain the life that was once promised to her, but Adams steers away from the obvious Blanche Dubois possibilities to create a neat, almost prim woman whose softly spoken approach contains real authority in controlling her adult children.

Adams treads a very nice line between being an embarrassing mother and wanting to find something for herself. She allows her character to come alive when Jim O’Connor finally visits, almost flirting with him herself and swept up in her blustering excitement about the evening and its possibilities. Adams shows that Amanda too is looking for escape, not in the physical sense like Tom, but at least in her imagination, allowing hope of something new to take hold of her while never forgetting the economic and maternal responsibilities that return her to the ground. It is a quieter version of Amanda, but very effective in this more symbolic production.

Laura and gentleman caller Jim really have their moment in Scene VII, left alone on stage to discuss the glass menagerie and the fragility of their lives. Lizzie Annis’s Laura has been in the background before this, talked about and momentarily passing through the scene but here she emerges from her shyness and Annis draws the parallels with the delicacy of her ornaments and a similar past-loving hopefulness as her mother. Victor Alli gives Jim a depth of compassion which makes their decisive conversation compelling showing, unlike the Wingfields, that he lives in the present, happy to reminisce for a few hours but upfront and truthful about who he is and his limitations.

Most of this comes together best in the second half of Herrin’s show where the staging concept along with Williams’s story and the performances, catch fire while the first part of the production is still a little disjointed. But as Williams’s structural approach and characterisation start to take hold, Herrin’s production becomes compelling, even haunting in moments that generates spontaneous emotional reactions from its audience. While it is probably time to let the play rest for a while, the three productions in five years have all had something slightly different to contribute and Herrin’s interpretation with Adams at the helm has certainly added further layers of meaning.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 27 August with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Curve Leicester

Regional theatre was given a whole new market thanks to the opportunities created by digital streaming during the last 18-months, leading the way on audience engagement and the innovative development of filming techniques that made watching shows from home increasingly enjoyable and immersive. Now, it’s our turn to give back, taking the chance to support these reopened venues with in-person visits to theatres that made the London-centric sit up and finally take notice. With gripping screen-only productions of The Colour Purple and a particularly transformative Sunset Boulevard, the lure of Curve Leicester is increasingly irresistible.

The reason for this long overdue attendance, a searing production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the small studio space that absolutely burns with the fire and fury that the playwright built into this towering drama. Tight as a drum and thrumming with palpable tension, Anthony Almeida’s production, premiering at Curve before the English Touring Theatre take it to several other venues, is ferocious, a magnificent adaptation that follows other recent approaches to Williams by modernising the setting and focusing on the complex emotional intensity as a family combusts in front of us.

Previous attempts to place Williams’s work in a more contemporary or at least timeless setting have had mixed results; the Young Vic worked its magic with a 2014 version of A Streetcar Named Desire gratefully broadcast by National Theatre at Home last year, the Almeida too with that defining production of Summer and Smoke that did so much to revive the immediate potency of Williams’s emotional excavation. More recently, Hampstead Theatre’s pandemic-delayed version of The Two Character Play incorporated plenty of modern tricks and techniques but failed to lift this difficult work, while the most recent West End version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Benedict Andrews with a starry cast was a sorry, cold and lustless affair that confused nudity with chemistry.

So, Almeida’s production for Curve is an interesting lesson in how to take a beloved classic play, really strip it back to its essential characteristics using minimal staging and still hold on to all of the complex emotional currents, changes of direction and the bubbling tension that make it worth revisiting. There is, crucially, real danger here, it absolutely bristles with confrontational energy, that once-in-a-lifetime truth-telling session for the Pollitt family that was somehow inevitable but long delayed, as characters buried their feelings or hid from the truths they cannot bear to face. What Almeida brings to this revival is that feeling that its now or never for these people and once the storm plays out, everyone’s outlook will be forever different.

Because this is a play about the fight, everyone has an agenda, they all need something, a clarity that relies on someone else noticing them or being honest about what’s going on. And the audience sees, particularly in the stonking first half and the early part of the second, is that this is really high stakes stuff, and while Williams holds back some of the cards for later scenes, we come to realise that everyone has everything on the line on this fateful night that Almeida’s production rather gloriously brings to life.

And across the 2.5 hours of this story, there is very little relief, plunging the audience immediately into the marital troubles of Maggie and Brick and thereon holding our attention with an iron grip. Even the sudden interval which comes in the middle of the intensive and combative duologue between Brick and Dig Daddy gives little pause, leaving characters on stage before jumping right back into this full-throttle encounter without missing a beat – it is an extraordinary feat for the actors and demands an instant hush from an audience resettling after the break.

What this Curve and ETT revival does so well is to delineate the individual trajectories, opening with a forensic skill the wants of each character while still creating a consistent family dynamic – albeit a relatively dysfunctional one – and you believe in all of their ways of being. Williams, of course, shines the brightest spotlight on the central couple kept apart by sexual jealousy, resentment and self-loathing, inspired and fuelled by Brick’s alcoholism. Here, we are shown their parallel tracks as Maggie tries desperately to bring their paths back together. She is fighting for her marriage and a remembrance of the man she loved. It is a furious, desperate, scrappy business for her using every bit of her armoury from her body to various means of manipulation to get what she wants. Brick, by contrast, and arguably unrecognised by his wife, is actually fighting for his life, even more so than Big Daddy, almost letting it slip away but clinging to fragments of his own memories – the man he was, his athletic prowess and friendship. There are snatches when he looks at Maggie with something like his old feeling for her, amused, impressed, even proud of her resilience and determination.

Likewise, the relationship between Big Mama and Big Daddy feels crueller than ever, his lack of sympathy and bullying a clear template for his sons and their struggle to connect with or impress him. The volcanic rage he directs at everyone very occasionally appears in his sons while his wife silently accepts his bitter diatribes while trying to find comfort in noise, knowledge and the family she has endured so much to create and sustain. But she has strength too, a refusal to bend or break whatever direction the wind is coming from, quietly holding it all together. Meanwhile the obsequious Gooper and Mae seem far more sinister than previous productions, a pretence of happiness designed to sell Big Daddy a dream and reward them with his millions. The switch from kindness to cold, hard business in the penultimate scene is, therefore, rather chilling.

In staging this production, designer Rosanna Vize creates a simple but evocative space filled with places for characters to listen-in on each other’s conversations – a key theme in the play that contributes to the tight claustrophobic experience that Williams generates and so unnerves the protagonists. Initially played through a gauzy circular curtain surrounding Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, the hazy focus responds to their mismatched view of each other while creating a seductive feel to the their passionate opening conversation. The intrusion of other characters, Mae in particular who draws the curtain back, cuts through all of this to remove the filter, presaging what will become a night of revelation.

The combination of design and lighting creates an intense central playing space which seamlessly becomes the various locations. A raised edge doubles for the eavesdroppers’ balconies and Almeida uses these areas to emphasis moments of particular tension, silently lining-up the usually off-stage or unseen characters who observe the action, placing further pressure on the speakers who struggle to be honest without privacy, while continually drawing attention to the complex network of family and neighbours whose lives so completely intersect. It is notable that the church and medical profession are represented as the outside-insiders who become part of this household tonight but represent death and damnation that hangs over the Pollitts as their crisis ripens.

The staging, then, becomes both narratively functional and representational, allowing Almeida to create drive and drama in this soulless space of opaque materials and emptiness, but at the same time fill it with the emotional baggage and vast landscapes of Williams’s creations. Occasionally, the symbolism goes too far asking the audience to imagine phones that don’t exist or the cashmere robe Big Daddy is given for his birthday, but unlike Andrews’s interpretation whose windowless luxury sucked the soul from the drama, Almeida finds a wonderful and utterly compelling harmony within these contrasting elements, unleashing the very great power in one of Williams’s finest work and, with Joshua Gadsby’s lighting, create pace and evocative stage pictures that illuminate the work anew.

This production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also owes much to its cast who find depth and resonance in their character to give them fresh appeal. Siena Kelly’s Maggie is both tenacious and vulnerable, driven by a need to make her marriage work that goes beyond the humiliation of failure to some almost romantic concept of destiny. But Kelly’s Maggie is an earthy creature, a woman open about her mistakes and failures but also her desires. Kelly carries herself so particularly, using her body and knowing its value as a communication tool, dressed in sensuous fabrics and prepared to grapple in the dust, pay whatever price and do whatever it takes to bend this family towards her.

Oliver Johnstone has been one to watch for some time with notable performances in the RSC’s Imperium and Cymbeline as well as All My Sons for the Old Vic. Here he gives his best performance yet as a deeply troubled and broken Brick Pollitt. There is such a desperate sorrow in Johnstone’s approach as his Brick becomes slowly more inebriated. But rightly, it never makes him pitiable or too empathetic. A character bent on his own destruction, there is a huge range here, disillusion turning to fury to amusement and attraction, despair, cruelty, disregard and even a hint of affection for his nephews that betrays his own desire for children, the chance that he and Maggie may really want the same thing after all. Johnstone holds the characterisation throughout, entirely immersed in the role, always reacting, responding or lost in Brick’s pain as he searches for release.

Peter Forbes as Big Daddy is equally strong, a self-made man who betrays his roots when a brush with death makes him vulnerable, something that manifests in his ebullience and need to re-establish control, making him a powerful and glowering presence while trying, like everyone else, to make sense of his life and its future direction. As Big Mama, Teresa Banham has less stage time as the men hammer-out their problems but the portrait of her marriage is vivid and while she may not have Maggie’s openness, Banham suggests a woman fighting in her own way for status and notice as a house full of domineering men consume all of the oxygen.

Curve Leicester is pushing boundaries with this version of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, combining a chic visual aesthetic that supports a deeply reflective take on a play that continues to yield new insights and surprises. Like Chichester with their divine South Pacific, this bold production at Curve Leicester shows that regional theatres have been quick off the starting blocks with imaginative and smart new work that, even accounting for the train ticket, costs less than a top West End seat. Having enjoyed several virtual visits during lockdown, a live one was long overdue and hugely rewarding.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at Curve Leicester until 18 September before a UK tour. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Two Character Play – Hampstead Theatre

The Two Character Play - Hampstead Theare (by Marc Brenner)

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

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

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