Tag Archives: Tennessee Williams

“The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” at the Charing Cross Theatre 

It takes courage as well as expertise to tackle this 1963 play by Tennessee Williams. Director Robert Chevara has the bravery and expertise to do the job but there’s no pretending this a show for everyone. 

Williams’ overwrought, some might say overwritten, script suffers from his own biography (the programme contains a note to that effect). The playwright’s reputation weighs heavily over the work. Take the lead – an aging, addled Southern Belle called Flora – who could be a cliché of earlier writing or, too temptingly, a reflection of Williams’ life. 

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is rich in symbols and ideas, with dialogue so convoluted it can seem ridiculous. It’s a meditation on mortality, with a terminally ill heroine who’s out of her mind and another character nicknamed The Angel of Death, who is really a (pretty bad) poet. And it’s one of Williams’ ‘memory plays’ as Flora recounts her “demented memoirs” out loud. What kind of a book that would be is a puzzle; ambitions to be another Proust indicate that what she is writing, in snatches, is more fiction than fact. But, as Flora’s grip on reality weakens, she comes to believe her own legend… maybe. 

Chevara gives as much guidance as he can. The production is hampered by a set from Nicolai Hart-Hansen, separating locations in Flora’s Italian villa to little effect. But Chevara makes the piece tense and tender – neither quality easily achieved – and he has a commendable view about the humour in the piece. 

“A witch and a bitch”

The production has strong performances that win respect. The star casting of Linda Marlowe and Sara Kestelman, as Flora and her ‘friend’ The Witch of Capri, is exciting. Kestelman is superb with the waspish humour so many Williams fans adore. But the catty remarks – which are very funny – are handled with restraint. This play shows a serious side of camp, and that is one of its many challenges. 

Marlowe’s Flora is fragile and builds to ferocious as death approaches. Generating surprising sympathy for this “dying monster”, Marlowe also aids suspense. Flora declares, “everything is urgentissimo this summer”, with the aim of taking a lover – quite literally – on her death bed. How’s that for uncomfortable? 

Sanee Raval’s role as Chris Flanders, that so-called Angel of Death, sums up many of the difficulties with the play. More credit to him for his performance. The role is caught between the real and the symbolic. Raval’s performance shows intelligence as the character starts to believe his own myth, while being aware it is one constructed by Gothic gossip. 

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is extreme to the point of crazed, so you need a director with a very firm hand in charge and an open mind (ready to be blown away) to watch it. Of course, the theatre can only provide one of these. Be prepared to work if you go to this one. 

Until 22 October 2022 

www.charingcrosstheatre.com 

Photo by Nick Haeffner 

“The Two Character Play” at Hampstead Theatre

What a play. This late work from Tennessee Williams, which premiered at Hampstead back in 1967, is a mind-blowing exploration of fear and metatheatricality. And what a production. Director Sam Yates and accomplished performers Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla command this hugely complex script. Yates makes a strong argument for Williams’ vision and his precocious eccentricities, making them theatrically compelling and appropriately terrifying.

The scenario is far from simple. Two actor siblings, struggling in many ways, perform a play within a play. Felice and Clare are vivid creations, like the roles they adopt. But as The Two Character Play we watch carries on, it reflects, mimics and then – maybe – shapes their lives. Felice has written the piece, but it is changing as they they both perform it. Oh, and it has no end. Don’t worry, nobody is more confused than the characters themselves.

The brother and sister in the play are trapped at home – I did wonder if the play was chosen for staging during lockdown – while Felice and Clare are trapped in the theatre (quite literally). The claustrophobia is intense and grows as we learn about all four characters. Trauma and phobia multiply. The use of stage – which seems simply huge one moment and confining the next – is brilliant.

Two-Character-Play-Hampstead-photo-by-Marc-Brenner
Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla

Williams’ language is a wonder. The poetic imagery, so full of the senses, means some lines stun. And the metatheatrical references, handled with bravado, include addressing the “stranger than strange” audience and speaking stage directions out loud. Clare’s live ‘edit’ of the script is signalled by a key played on the piano; O’Flynn even approaching the instrument becomes charged.

Yates brings just the right amount of lucidity to proceedings. With themes common to Williams’ plays, there’s a suggestion of self-parody that is often funny. O’Flynn has an exquisite delivery of some deadpan lines. Best of all, a sense of spontaneity is injected into a script that you could easily argue is contrived. Rather, the script itself seems alive!

Make no mistake – the mood is forbidding. Williams used dreams in his work throughout his life. But here we have a nightmare. Fear of performing is only the start as the characters’ lives, and their show, descend into darkness. Improvisations are fraught as the story unfolds to becomes more and more disturbing. Varla makes Felice a hugely sympathetic character – his performance is deeply moving. But the show is downright scary with a last half hour full of tension… and a gun.

All this drama is brought to the stage magnificently by Yates. With all manner of lighting and sound effects (Lee Curran and Dan Balfour) along with live video recording and projections (Akhila Krishnan). And Rosanna Vize’s set is perfect for the destabilising, fluid script. The Two Character Play is like being inside the minds of several mad people. Taking us into that condition makes unforgettable, amazing theatre.

Until 28 August 2021

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“A Streetcar Named Desire” from NTLive

Provided during lockdown via the National Theatre, Benedict Andrews’ acclaimed production of the Tennessee Williams classic was a big hit for the Young Vic back in 2014: don’t forget there are two places to consider donating to this week! Intense and innovative, it reflects the spirit of its author and is a strong revival of a classic.

The legendary role of Blanche DuBois, the archetypal Williams heroine – a deluded, down-at-heel former Southern Belle – makes a star role for Gillian Anderson. The issue with such an iconic part is the struggle to make her appear new, and Anderson achieves this with a fraught interpretation full of pain that focuses on alcoholism and mental health.

Blanche is charming and sexy. Anderson makes her funny, too. But she is also imperious and her arrival and stay with her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, along with a romance with their friend Mitch, is full of condescension as well as tension. Blanche’s “awful vanity”, which Anderson does not share, make her unappealing and her attraction to young boys is downright creepy. The desire for “temporary magic” doesn’t convince as it might, but Anderson still makes Blanche a heart-rending figure.

Andrews’ use of a revolving stage made the production memorable, but Magda Willi’s design is downplayed in the recording in favour of close-up shots. This is to the benefit of all, as the fine work from director and cast is, literally, clearer. This Streetcar Named Desire is presented as a real four-hander.

Vanessa Kirby in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Vanessa Kirby

Vanessa Kirby’s Stella is at her best when showing sisterly concern, which she does with consistent skill. Ben Foster’s Stanley is entirely brutal, given none of the glamour sometimes associated with the role. He’s all “animal force”, which makes his final outrage against Blanche (a scene not for the faint hearted) terrifying; the predestination he claims – “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” – is chilling. Foster’s performance is stark but fits Andrews’ brutal vision. Violence pervades the show, domestic abuse is taken for granted, and even Blanche’s suitor Mitch moves from having a “sensitive look” to being a threatening presence in a brilliant performance from Corey Johnson.

Ben Foster in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Ben Foster

Williams, like his creation Blanche, goes for “strong bold colours”, a preference literally reflected in Jon Clark’s lighting design and one that sums up Andrews’ approach. As the “evasions and ambiguities” Blanche has been living with lead to a total breakdown, there’s the suggestion that Stanley, as with every other man she has encountered, has gaslighted her. It’s a bold and enlightened way of bringing out Williams’ questions of “deliberate cruelty” that make this production even better on a second viewing.

Available until Wednesday 28 May 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk, youngvic.org

Photos by Johan Persson

“Southern Belles” at the King’s Head Theatre

The headline show of this venue’s Queer Season, this is an evening of two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. While celebrating their iconic writer, the programme is a triumph for promoting its director, Jamie Armitage. Williams isn’t easy to control, putting directors under a glaring spotlight, but Armitage turns that around to examine the author himself.

First up is Something Unspoken, easily seen as classic Williams territory. A grand dame of the American South and her long-standing secretary are a couple skirting around their unacknowledged intimacy, with pathos and humour, that makes a riveting confrontation. Annabel Leventon takes the lead as the wealthy Cornelia Scott and excels with the acid one-liners. Fiona Marr is moving as the companion for this formidable matron, a timid figure next to her iron lady. The sentiment and silence that prove so fecund for Williams are balanced perfectly by Armitage. The high quality is evident in its subplot, the election for presidency of the Daughters of the Confederacy – easily dismissed as a joke, both actresses parallel the tension in their relationship with Scott’s failure to secure the position.

Luke Mullins and George Fletcher

And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens is the more notable piece. We’re told it’s the only work in the Williams canon to contain openly gay characters. Armitage has secured similarly strong performances, with Luke Mullins performing as Candy, a transvestite who pursues a straight sailor, played by George Fletcher. It’s undoubtedly fascinating, but there is a marked drop in standard. Candy is too much the focus of the writing, which might be forgiven if it didn’t make the piece slow, repetitive and predictable. A pathetic figure in the true meaning of the word, Mullins manages – against the odds – to carve out some dignity for the character. But there is little tension in the piece, despite it being more action packed, as Williams’ own self-loathing clouds his judgement.

There’s a trade off with this second short – a balance between theatre history, its potential as a documentary of sorts and the author’s biography and bias – that make it interesting to watch rather than enjoyable. But, on the whole, the plays complement one another nicely. They illustrate a past experience of lesbian and gay life. But they also present us with the author as we know him and then offer new insight into his writing. Showing Williams both in control and then with a degree of abandon makes this a treat for his fans.

Until 24 August 2019

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photos by Scott Rylander

“The Night of the Iguana” at the Noël Coward Theatre

With a drunken defrocked priest battling his demons, while two women fight over his future, this play is classic Tennessee Williams. Brimming with disturbed characters and melancholy abstract observations, it may be verbose (it has a three-hour running time), but this fan lapped it up. And with the production’s star casting – a triple whammy of big-hitters – it’s a quality night out that deserves success.

Clive Owen

Clive Owen takes the lead, filling big shoes as the not-so-Reverend Shannon, a part made famous by Richard Burton in the 1964 film. Owen seems uncomfortable at first but grows into the part and always manages a kind of charm; that’s quite something, given Shannon’s predatory violent abuse of women (no, the play hasn’t aged well in that respect). There are plenty of references to Shannon being a gentleman, and he could be played aloof, but Owen ignores this to give us a rough-and-ready chancer. Even the “crack up” that Shannon suffers is moving as we’re taken through the range of rage and infantilism that Williams too studiously lists. That Owen ends up overshadowed by his female co-stars is down to Williams more than him.

Anna Gunn

The iconic status of certain roles by Williams may have blinded us to the variety of his writing female parts, and here a blunt contrast between Hannah and Maxine proves illuminating. It’s a conflict full of ambiguity, notably between a spinster and a widow (roles that both characters play tellingly with). Anna Gunn is Maxine, manager of the hotel the play is set in. A “bigger than life” personality, she offers Shannon fun and vitality, but at what cost? Gunn makes her character’s loneliness, one of the play’s main themes, a subtle undertone. What Maxine would get out of a partnership with Shannon remains an intriguing question. But it’s Lia Williams as Hannah Jelkes who lights up the play. Twee one moment, a “cool hustler” the next, this is a magnetic performance of a mesmerising character. Has Shannon met his match? Does Hannah care either way? Carefully revealing the characters’ own troubles, this is a picture of eccentricity that Williams – the actress more than the author – grounds in real life. No matter how bizarre Jelkes or her aged poet grandfather (another strong performance here from Julian Glover) may be, they feel recognisable – and not just exaggerations in a Tennessee Williams play.

Lia Williams and Julian Glover

Controlling some of the playwright’s often inspired flights of fancy means plenty of credit for director James Macdonald. One approach is to embrace the offbeat humour, making the play surprisingly funny, with both Owen and Williams excelling here. Another technique is for a muted feel that roots the play in its bizarre love triangle and provides necessary focus. The Night of the Iguana is overpopulated – not just with that titular reptile – and nothing can redeem a group of German tourists who make random appearances for not-at-all-light relief. But Macdonald handles the numbers well. The talk of “spooks” who haunt Shannon is made to feel practical, a dramatic plot point rather than overplayed metaphor. Macdonald clarifies a battle between reality and the fantastic. The latter is Shannon’s favourite word, as Jelkes wryly notes, but it ends up serving as a good summation of the show overall.

Until 29 September 2019

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photos by Brinkhoff.Moegenburg

“Orpheus Descending” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

While recent revivals of works by the great Arthur Miller have attracted a lot of deserved attention, new productions of plays by his compatriot Tennessee Williams are just as exciting. This one, showcasing a difficult piece that’s often ignored or dismissed, should be a hot ticket. Director Tamara Harvey has crafted a great show that views the text as an opportunity rather than a problem, and the result is revelatory.

Harvey isn’t satisfied with the clichés of Southern Gothic that surround much of Williams’ work. She takes a quieter approach and, at first, the arrival of a charismatic stranger in a small town is played – almost – like a soap opera. There’s a strong sense of community embodied by gossiping neighbours, roles that Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson excel in. After all, there’s no reason for the set-up to be instantly claustrophobic. There’s plenty of time for that to develop.

The same restraint is shown with the central pairing of the shopkeeper Lady Torrance and the wandering minstrel Valentine Xavier who comes to work for her. We can see Lady’s frustration and his charisma from the start, but the move into an affair is depicted with sophistication. The excellent performances from Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich intrigue the audience before ratcheting up the tension.

Of course, Orpheus Descending has oddities – wonderful ones. Lady ends up as one of Williams’ most tragic female leads (which is saying something), while Valentine’s fate aims at being mythic. Yet Morahan prevents Lady from being too much the victim, exciting our interest and arousing our sympathy. Numrich makes his role credible by underplaying the extraordinary – he’s a nice guy rather than some unearthly gigolo.

You might be wondering if Harvey has shorn off too much of the show and perhaps domesticated Williams somehow? But it would be a tough allegation to substantiate. Music and myth are still central to the piece – and focused all the better. The score from Simon Slater is excellent, if too muted. The figure of Uncle Pleasant, suggesting both history and racism – played with commanding presence by Valentine Hanson – is given some of Williams’ scene-setting stage directions to read, enforcing his all-seeing role. There’s still plenty to question and unnerve.

Jemima Roper

Harvey’s strategy in miniature is shown with the role of local girl gone wrong, Carol. Suggesting conflicts in human nature that Williams wanted to examine makes it a tough call for a performer. But Jemima Roper conveys the ideas with real drama, presenting the desperate figure of a “lewd vagrant”, and a campaigner, clear about the corruption that surrounds her. Finally, she is a visionary who is “sick with neon”. Carefully taking us through these steps enforces the play’s structure, characters and ideas. With Harvey’s skills, Orpheus Descending gradually goes up, up, up, all the way.

Until 6 July 2019

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Summer and Smoke” at the Almeida Theatre

The youthful courtships in Tennessee Williams’ plays are usually things of the past – recounted by his formidable heroines. Here the action unfolds before us and whether the affair between minister’s daughter Alma and her next-door neighbour John will evolve is filled with an exciting tension… if you’re an optimist or haven’t seem much Williams. Sense-talking Alma is hugely sympathetic, while John is sensitive and passionate, a doctor making a mess of his youth. Presented as two extremes of spirituality and physicality, a compromise between them would be good for both. It’d be nice if it worked out.

There isn’t a party at the end, sorry, and the 1948 play’s reputation isn’t much celebrated either. But this production is so strong it takes us well into the second act to see why. After an electrifying argument as John’s father lies murdered (I didn’t say there was no melodrama), the play drags its feet, harps on about unrequited love and becomes, well, mopey. Alma was, reportedly, Williams’ favourite heroine – her fire and fierce intelligence makes this understandable – but while the performance here, from Patsy Ferran, does her justice, Alma deserves better than the end she had written for her.

Unlike the play, the production is faultless. Rebecca Frecknall has directed the piece before and her close knowledge proves invaluable. Matthew Needham delivers a fine performance as John, who is filled with sexual frustration and confusion. Despite cruelties and misogynistic remarks, the attraction is clear. Using the play’s motif of doppelgängers Frecknall doubles her cast cleverly, which feels like a defining way to stage the show. And taking multiple roles as various love rivals to Alma means Anjana Vasan really gets to shine. The staging is simple yet beautiful, taking inspiration from Williams’ experimental works. Few props and no costume changes, just seven pianos forming a semi-circle and accompanying music from Angus MacRae that adds to the atmosphere immeasurably.

As for Ferran, she’s so good she gets her own paragraph here. Ferran’s performance is career making: she inhabits Alma but makes us question the character’s self-definition as “weak and divided”. Her physical frailty is painful to watch. Depicting the degeneration of her health is astounding and Alma’s struggle against illness both moving and determined. Ferran can even inject a sly humour, with a suggestive eyebrow that’s a great asset. Cast in a show that’s as smart as she clearly is, the combination is a production that makes as forceful a case for this flawed masterpiece as Williams himself could have wished for.

Until 7 April 2018

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Apollo Theatre

With director Benedict Andrews and a couple of star turns on board, this foray into the West End by the Young Vic has plenty of allure. The story of marital tension between Maggie and Brick against the background of his wealthy father’s illness is not Tennessee Williams’ finest work. Of course, it’s still better than most plays you can see. And this production’s efforts to inject an arty edge could go a long way to increase its reputation within the playwright’s canon.

For a play somewhat tiresomely obsessed with mendacity, it’s a nice touch on Andrews’ part to present such a stripped-back stage – there’s nowhere to hide here. The intense focus respects Williams’ writing and sets up the cast for their sterling performances, even if it all becomes a little exhausting.

Sienna Miller plays Maggie the Cat. She injects a strong element of realism; you can sense her desire for her husband, her desperation at the breakdown of her marriage. Escaping from the shadow of Elizabeth Taylor’s depiction in the film version is no mean feat – Miller’s hard work deserves praise. Colm Meaney takes the part of Big Daddy and benefits from Andrews’ correct decision to balance the play so that it is equally about this grand patriarch. Meaney makes this “selfish beast” of a man truly compelling to watch.

Between both frequently loud characters comes Brick, former high-school athlete and sports commentator suffering from depression. Jack O’Connell takes the role and makes the quiet work for him. There are flashes of dignity in the performance and a good deal of anger, if not quite as much depth as might be required. O’Connell is a good stage drunk, though, and sections of the play that deal with alcoholism are the strongest, which comes as little surprise, given Williams’ own relationship with booze.

As the candles burn down on Big Daddy’s birthday cake, things start to get messy. The cake for start – you know someone is going to get dirty with it. It’s distracting to guess who and a relief when sticky sponge predictably ends up all over the set. Unfortunately, the messiness in the production extends to its direction. There’s a general untidiness that means Williams’ already sprawling story starts to drag. A shame since Andrews does have a strong central idea – to turn the family into white trash, with none of the usual genteel poverty. Maggie was “born poor, raised poor”, and this is very much new money. The insight makes for startling touches but needs more focus. Despite solid work, the treatment is too slow.

Until 7 October 2017

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Johan Persson

“The Glass Menagerie” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

This is the best production of a Tennessee Williams play I’ve seen. Director John Tiffany brings out the text’s peculiar humour and pathos while exploring its status as the author’s first ‘memory play’. A superb cast responds with style to this trilogy of achievements.

The memory play was an idea Williams explored throughout his career. This original effort, with our hero Tom recalling his life with the mother and sister he abandoned, is raw with autobiographical guilt. It is also highly poetic. Respecting this lyricism is one of the production’s fortes, mostly secured by Michael Esper’s beautiful delivery, as well as suggestions of movement, mime and dance aided by a score from Nico Muhly.

Bob Crowley’s design also complements the elegiac air: an Escher-style fire escape and pools of water might sound artsy but are understated. The set is a dreamlike, darkened bubble without walls, yet the claustrophobia of the two-by-four flat closes in on you. But there’s something comforting in that darkness as well, with a hint of masochistic pleasure in the nostalgia can.

Michael Esper and Cherry Jones

The memories are those of Esper’s Tom. Fey, often funny, his guilt makes him a tragic figure, whose outbursts are tinged with a hysteria that Esper handles especially well, convincing us that he is living in a “nailed up coffin”. As a contrast, remembering how complex Williams’ heroines are, there is a magisterial performance from Cherry Jones as his dignified mother, Amanda, whose wit brings out the play’s lighter touches. After all, these lives have their high points – joy in reflecting on the past and fantasising about the future, with realistic fears adding a degree of tension. As “a woman of action as well as words”, this Amanda is someone to respect.

As for the production being emotionally potent, it is Briton Kate O’Flynn as fragile sister Laura and Brian J Smith with a tender portrayal of her gentleman caller who deliver the goods. Smith is heart breaking not just due to her innocence but because she has a wider awareness than her family credits her with.

Tiffany’s credentials are currently high due his work on Harry Potter. Famously in The Glass Menagerie, Tom claims he is a magician, but it is the whole cast and their director who deserve that title here. Conjuring the best out of each element of this masterpiece, they make the production enchanting.

Until 29 April 2017

www.theglassmenagerie.co.uk/

Photos by Johan Persson

“A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur” at the Print Room

Even a cursory knowledge of Tennessee Williams’ women raises expectations of this rarely performed play, which has no fewer than four female characters. A group of middle-aged singletons gather in cheap accommodation on a hot afternoon in St Louis, so you can imagine how the writer of Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat might go to town on them. But the most intriguing thing here is Williams’ restraint.

Debbie Chazen, Julia Watson and Hermione Gulliford
Debbie Chazen, Julia Watson and Hermione Gulliford

Bodey is a mother hen, portrayed brilliantly by Debbie Chazen, who makes the character easy to root for as she clucks over her roommate Dorothea (Laura Rogers), who has fallen for her no-good boss. They are joined by their depressed neighbour, a difficult role, mostly in German, that Julia Watson does well with. And paying an urgent visit is Dorothea’s colleague Helena, a “well dressed snake” and snob, seeing “absolute desolation” in the homely apartment. If the waspish lines, delivered impeccably by Hermione Gulliford, please the crowd, there’s also a touching monologue about her loneliness. True, these women have agendas. But they aren’t all devious or downright delusional (a common Williams trait), with hopes, dreams and a self-awareness that are entirely down to earth.

Laura Rogers
Laura Rogers

The production appreciates what might even be called a prosaic streak. Director Michael Oakley has crafted a tight domestic drama, with grandeur coming from Fotini Dimou’s impressive set and the appropriate shabby-chicness of the venue itself. Dorothea comes closest to a standard Williams heroine: we are warned she has a “Southern Belle complex”. Whether Rogers’ performance is wary enough of this is debatable. The play’s anticlimactic revelations and speculation on “the long run” (the future obsesses these women) may seem like small beans from a writer who usually dealt with higher stakes, but this play has a quiet appeal all its own.

Until 7 October 2016

www.the-print-room-org

Photos by Catherine Ashmore