Tag Archives: Tennessee Williams

“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

“In the bar of a Tokyo Hotel” at the Charing Cross Theatre

With the benefit of director Robert Chevara’s intelligent handling, here’s an unmissable opportunity to see a rarely performed late work by Tennessee Williams. This startlingly innovative play, which ruthlessly examines a broken marriage, shows Williams’ unique and challenging voice in a new light.

Mark is a successful artist who believes he has made a breakthrough with his painting, with a new style that has clear parallels with Williams’ writing. According to his sexually ferocious wife Miriam, he has simply gone mad. Aggressive advances toward a barman fill Miriam’s time as she waits for Mark’s agent to arrive and take him away – she’s had enough of him and his art.

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Andrew Koji

These are tough roles that Chevara supervises carefully. David Whitworth is entirely credible as the (literally) unstable, dying artist. Andrew Koji and Alan Turkington, playing the barman and gallerist, appreciate the piece’s humour perfectly. Linda Marlowe has the star role, delivering a mesmerising performance that establishes Miriam as another leading lady in the Williams canon.

In this hugely difficult text, few lines of dialogue are completed – a treatment that toys with naturalism while being extremely stylised – so it’s forgivable that the delivery isn’t quite perfect. And yet the stilted language has a distinct and demanding beauty. Key words are isolated and repeated for weight, creating a rhythm to the piece that carries into Miriam’s witty insults, desperation and, finally, transcendental ideas.

Inspired by Japanese poetry, the sensibility is still Williams, making a fusion of East and West that’s often disorientating and exquisitely reflected in the production’s video projections. There are times this play feels like an out-of-body experience – characters describe actions we can clearly observe – compounded by suggestions that Mark and Miriam are really two sides of the same character (get your head around that one). A weird and wonderful play that stands alone and proud.

Until 14 May 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Young Vic

Gillian Anderson is currently thrilling the crowds at the Young Vic Theatre as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Director Benedict Andrews’ eye-catching take on the Tennessee Williams classic is a respectful updating of the play that aims to avoid nostalgia. The production isn’t faultless, but it is admirably rich in ideas.

The use of a revolving stage is sure to prove memorable. Magda Willi’s carefully neutral design takes us away from a period feel and focuses on the claustrophobia of the flat lived in by Blanche’s sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, a place to which Blanche retreats in disgrace after losing the family estate and having a mental breakdown.

Making the show quite literally dynamic is cleverly done. Props are plentiful and extra characters circle the stage menacingly. It all adds time, though, as does some current, rather distracting pop music, so that, all in, the production is well over three hours. And while it looks great, the slow revolve must be hugely demanding on the cast. You can hear everything, though, which is no small achievement, and watching them becomes unusually intense.

Andrews’ interpretation of Blanche is stark, focusing on her alcoholism and mental health. Of course, Blanche is a victim, a tragic icon made moving by Anderson’s performance, but Andrews takes her descent into mental illness too much for granted – there could be more of a fight here and the audience, like her potential fiancé Mitch (the excellent Corey Johnson), should be taken in by her “magic” a little more.

There are also problems with Stella and Stanley. Divorcing the action from the 1940s doesn’t help explain the class distinction in the play. Vanessa Kirby gives an impassioned performance but seems literally out of time. Stanley fares even worse. Ben Foster provides an animal presence, but there is surely more to Stanley than the “ape” Blanche says he is. Foster is powerful, but his performance is robbed of subtlety.

There’s no doubt that this is Anderson’s show. For a director as bold as Andrews, this might seem predictable but the focus is on the pain in the play – which is brutally and powerfully conveyed. Anderson deals with the responsibility placed upon her and is tremendous. She’s sexy and desperate, giving a raw and urgent performance that, by the nature of the production, is distraught and messy at times.

Until 19 September 2014

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 1 August 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Hotel Plays” at the Grange Holborn Hotel

Tennessee Williams spent so much of his later life living in and writing about hotels that staging his plays in one seems so obvious, so very neat, that it’s instantly appealing. Site-specific theatre has to be special stuff to excite, and this thrilling trilogy of short works does just that at the Grange Holborn Hotel.

The Hotel PlaysGreen Eyes, The Travelling Companion and Sunburst – afford glimpses into tawdry, lonely lives: a young couple arguing on their honeymoon, an ageing homosexual writer with his unwilling escort, and an elderly lady held hostage in her room by staff turned ineffectual thieves. Being late works by Williams, they are peopled by extreme characters and bold to the point of being blunt.

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Clare Latham and Matt Milne

These are difficult roles to pull off (and unfortunately the accents prove too much of a challenge) but all the cast manage to establish their characters with commendable speed. John Guerrasio does particularly well as what is surely a merciless self-portrait by Williams – a “much too much” homosexual writer with a camp performance that has an eye on the stereotype the author must have seen himself becoming. His co-star, Laurence Dobiesz, also impresses as a fragile hustler who becomes intoxicated during the short duration of the play. But the best and bravest performances come in the first work, with Clare Latham and Matt Milne playing newlyweds acting out trauma with a sado-masochistic twist.

The Grange Holborn Hotel may not be the most charismatic property, but all credit to its farsighted management for cooperating with the Defibrillator Theatre Company. Staging the plays in the hotel adds immeasurably to them. Performed in rotation, you can hear the arguments from one as you sit in the room above watching another, with careful supervision from a trio of directors (James Hillier, Anthony Banks and Robert Hastie) who embrace the claustrophobia of the setting. This evening of morbidly powerful vignettes is captivating theatre – incredibly intimate and excruciatingly voyeuristic.

Until 27 October 2012

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 9 October 2012 for The London Magazine

“Vieux Carré” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Vieux Carré is a late work by Tennessee Williams that might be dismissed as overblown melodrama, but a new production from director Robert Chevara, transferring to the Charing Cross Theatre after a successful run at the King’s Head in Islington, asks us to think beyond the campery and caricature. In contrast to Williams’ baroque writing, Chevara and his designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen present a stripped-back, minimal affair that focuses attention and allows the poetry in the play to shine.

Set in a squalid boarding house in New Orleans, much of the action in Vieux Carré borders on the macabre or the insane. The gentlemen callers of Williams’ earlier plays have turned into vagrants and the playwright’s approach to sex and death is painfully direct. The occupants of this “New Babylon” seem familiar from earlier work but are now “far past pride”; grotesque enough to make “remarkable tableaux vivants” that even they seem shocked by. Considering the extreme characters, the cast’s performances are admirably restrained: the landlady Mrs Wire (Helen Sheals) sinks into madness at a controlled pace and a tortured love affair is performed convincingly by Samantha Coughlan and Paul Standell.

None of the characters is closer to dangerous parody than the “rapacious” homosexual artist Nightingale, so David Whitworth’s performance deserves special note for its appreciation of Williams’ humour as well as emphasising the loneliness that so occupied the author and gives the play its emotional power.

It is Nightingale’s relationship with the play’s narrator, a young writer naturally, that interests most – an autobiographical tease that Tom Ross-Williams has the talent and stage presence to carry. His neighbours are the material for his work but his observations lack coherence and are a shadow of Williams’ own oeuvre. As a play, Vieux Carré is frustrating but Chevara comes within a hair’s breadth of convincing us this is a major work, and that makes his production an important one to see.

Until 1 September 2012

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Tim Medley

Written 20 August 2012

“The Glass Menagerie” at the Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory’ play, The Glass Menagerie, is one you won’t forget. Introduced as a play that gives “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”, Hill-Gibbins and designer Jeremy Herbert develop Williams’ emphasis on the theatrical with crystal clarity.

With a curtain that goes down as well as up and musicians integrated into the action, the workings of the story are exposed to all, entrancing us with its telling.

Not that this illusion is really all that pleasant. Our narrator Tom relates the tale of his escape from home but never disguises the fact that he is abandoning his mother and sister. Leo Bill plays this unsympathetic character, who haunted from the start. It is a surprisingly physical portrayal with a palpable sense of anger and despair.

The urgency of Tom’s leaving is well established by Deborah Findlay and Sinead Matthews in the roles of his mother Amanda and sister Laura. The danger of their self-illusion is subtly conveyed and is all the more powerful for the way it creeps up on you.

Even in Williams’ day, the chivalry of the South was a thing of the past. Nowadays, Amanda’s delusions and Laura’s timidity can seem not just deluded but silly. Findlay does well to establish her character’s ideas without alienating the audience. This is a lesson Matthews has chosen to ignore. Some actresses play Laura with a stubbornness about her fantasy life that is missing here. But, in neglecting this, Matthews is all the more moving and as fragile as the glass animals she collects.

The play’s fourth character, Jim the gentleman caller, is “an emissary from the world of reality” and arrives through a door marked with a star. Kyle Soller gives an excellent performance, fitting Tom’s description of him perfectly and adding a sincerity that cannot fail to move. He becomes central to Hill-Gibbins’ sensitive direction of this masterpiece and in bringing emotion to the fore leaves us as haunted as the characters left abandoned in their fantasy world.

www.youngvic.org

Until 15 January 2011

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 22 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Notebook of Trigorin” at the Finborough Theatre

A ‘free adaptation’ by Tennessee Williams of Chekhov might sound like a strange idea. The Russian playwright is, well, Russian, and his works are full of reserved Slav emotions and characters who repress themselves in a manner we don’t associate with Williams. Yet Chekhov’s writing about the ‘interior life’, which made his theatre revolutionary, engaged the American writer. The Finborough Theatre gives us the chance to see his exploration in The Notebook of Trigorin, his version of The Seagull.

You might want to brush up on the original version – it makes for an interesting game of compare and contrast – but it is by no means essential and you’ll probably be enjoying this production too much to bother. Williams tightens what is already a compelling plot, and director Phil Willmott gives the action a lively pace.

The play is set in the family home of Arkadina, the most famous actress in Russia, during her infrequent visits to see her son Constantine who is looked after by her elderly brother Sorin. Accompanied by her younger lover, the writer Trigorin, she walks in on several sets of unrequited love.  Constantine is loved by Masha but adores their neighbour Nina. Masha is followed around by Medvedenko but wants nothing to do with him. Her mother Polina is obsessed by the local doctor Dorn. Arkadina’s arrival doesn’t make the situation simpler – Nina falls in love with Trigorin. In an unnecessary addition from Williams, Trigorin falls for a stable boy who goes swimming a lot. Thankfully, for brevity’s sake, he stays in the lake.

As these situations play themselves out, the characters deal with their dreams and ambitions. Constantine, played with brooding adolescent intensity by Rob Heaps, wants to be a writer. Nina (Samara MacLaren) hopes to become an actress and develops from a shy girl into an impassioned woman. Andrea Hall is wonderful as Masha, who struggles to abandon her unrequited love and marry Medvedenko, played with great charm by Daniel Norford. In a beautifully pitched performance, Lachele Carl’s Polina rails against Morgan James’s Dorn. His Doctor is one to strike from the register, a louche seducer played with great sexual presence whose treatment of Richard Franklin’s movingly vulnerable Sorin is deeply cruel.

Williams’ adaptation of the play is most noticeable with Trigorin. Stephen Billington reads his notebooks as a voiceover. This may have a strange Chandleresque quality but allows a distance between his interior voice and a wonderful performance on stage where we are never quite sure how genuine this man is. Trigorin fits that particularly American role of the flawed narrator. He is an artist first and foremost; keen to scribble down a potential story, to exploit a situation for narrative and quick to judge others.

What Trigorin and Williams share is their interest in Arkadina. Always a great role for an actress, in this version, she is combined with Williams’ other indubitable heroines. Women in genteel poverty are a common trait in his work, as are those who live their lives performing a role. Carolyn Backhouse takes on all this with great aplomb. She performs with humour and power as a woman with a fragile grip on what is precious to her and a ferocious ability to defend it.  She is like Blanche DuBois on steroids, more condemned than she might deserve to be. In the final scene, Willmott exploits this tension especially well, leading towards a dramatic tableau that reaffirms the plays concerns with the necessity and danger of artificiality. The whole of this superb cast are used. Their combined efforts more than make this production worth seeing and the play itself offers fascinating insights into both Chekhov and Williams.

Until 24 April 2010

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Scott Rylander

Written 1 April 2010 for The London Magazine