The Two Character Play
Back in 1967, Hampstead Theatre presented the world première of what Tennessee Williams considered “my most beautiful play since Streetcar, the very heart of my life,” directed by the theatre’s founder James Roose-Evans. Now it is revived as one of the “Originals” in the season that celebrates the theatre’s past, which was interrupted by the pandemic.
This isn’t a masterwork to set alongside Streetcar or The Glass Menagerie but a daring experiment that Williams went on working on, yet it seems to have some of the same roots in the dramatist’s family history of guilt and mental illness to which he adds theatrical nightmare.
It’s a play within a play in which actor and dramatist Felice and his fellow thespian sister Clare find themselves on tour in a theatre with an audience waiting but with half their scenery left behind and abandoned by the rest of their (unpaid) company. Their manager has scarpered and hasn’t booked their hotel; the actors have sent a message saying, “Your sister and you are insane.” But the show must go on and they have a play in their repertoire, one Felice never fully finished, but it's their two-person play, they don’t need the others. So here we are on a stage with a few flats that include a door and a window, with Felice (Zubin Varla) waiting for Clare (Kate O’Flynn) to turn up as curtain-up time approaches.
Director Sam Yates sends Varla on ten minutes before Williams’s play starts, clearing up and inspecting bin bags, setting equipment. As we discover later, he’s trying to rid the theatre of things that scare his sister. Yates adds yet another layer with video that at first faintly duplicates Felice’s action or offers close-ups, then, as we get into the play within the play and Felice and Clare assume deep southern accents, begins to show us ghostly images of the siblings’ childhood. At times, it looks as though Williams is finding a wry humour in echoing elements from better-known work and Yates to be making comment on more contemporary production cliché.
Facing the onstage camera, this production has Felice put his wig on as he seems to be working on some new script, exploring the same themes as Williams will do here: fear and love, need and rejection.
The play within the play presents a brother and sister whose father has shot their mother and then himself. Or was it the mother who did the shooting? Or are neighbours right in believing the children killed their parents? Whatever the truth is, they are trapped in their situation. For Clare, it goes on too long. She insists on cuts and arbitrarily makes them, striking a middle C on the piano as a warning when one is occurring. Where is the story going? Felice has never properly decided on the ending. In that, it’s just like life.
Both players deliver sustained performances, spontaneously switching from paranoia to bubble-blowing and dancing. O’Flynn’s shrill hysteria sometimes makes her incomprehensible, but that seems fitting and, though Varla seems much more stable, there still seems to be fear behind his eyes.
The southern siblings are trapped in their house, the actors in their theatre and, after a dramatic crescendo seems to announce the curtain but things continued, I began to feel trapped in the theatre too.
This is a production that celebrates this play’s theatricality; whether it makes sense of it is much less certain. It is a surreal expression of Williams’s feelings that offers audiences a challenge and this is a rare opportunity to see this play.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton