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Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee Williams’

In addition to almost forty full-length plays, Tennessee Williams wrote more than seventy one-act plays. I know I will never see them all, but I grab every opportunity I get, but I’ve still only seen a quarter of them. I enjoyed both of these, but the second one in particular was fascinating.

The first in the pairing, Something Unspoken, was written in 1958, the same year as Suddenly Last Summer, the year after Orpheus Descending and the year before Sweet Bird of Youth, all of which have had high profile stagings in the last two years. He wasn’t writing one-acters because he’d run out of steam; they were scattered throughout his career. It concerns Cornelia, a rich southern belle, living with Grace, her secretary / companion of fifteen years. As was the norm at that time, the true nature of their relationship is ambiguous, even buried. Cornelia is preoccupied with her place in society, and in particular the ladies association she aspires to lead, perhaps more so that her relationship.

The second play, And Tell Sad Stories Of The Deaths Of Queens, was originally written in 1957 but re-worked over the next five years. It was TW’s only openly gay play and had it been performed or published then, probably the first openly gay play of all, but it wasn’t staged until 2004 or published until 2005, more than twenty years after his death. It revolves around a wealthy New Orleans design shop and property owner known as Candy.

Since his partner of eighteen years left him, Candy is alone and lonely. He picks up Karl in a bar, a sailor, a bit of rough, and becomes obsessed with him, even though Karl does not share the attraction and is repulsed when Candy appears as a woman. He’s clearly there for what he can get – booze, money – but this doesn’t stop Candy’s attempts to create a relationship, despite the risks his neighbouring gay tenants warn him of. It might be more than sixty years old, but the story could be contemporary.

Director Jamie Armitage and his designer Sarah Mercade have configured the Kings Head with the audience on two sides, which provides a more spacious playing area that proves particularly effective and important for the second play. It’s carpeted in pink and surrounded by white and pink fabric, giving the space an other-worldly quality. Songs sung and played live by actors Michael Burrows and Ben Chinapen add to this atmosphere. It was great to see Annabel Leventon on stage again as Cornelia, with probably the most authentic southern accent I’ve ever heard. In the second play, Luke Mullins was outstanding as Candy, in a nuanced, delicate, mesmerising performance.

Great to add such high quality productions to my TW collection.

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Revivals of this 1961 Tennessee Williams play don’t come along as often as most of his other classics. I first saw it at the NT in 1992 with Alfred Molina as Shannon, then again in the West End in 2005, where Woody Harrelson took the lead. Now its Clive Owen’s turn, with American Anna Gunn and our own Lia Williams as the women in his life at this moment in time. It has TW’s usual biographical strands, with a predatory man who exploits young women adding a timeliness.

Rae Smith’s extraordinary set creates a mountain lodge with four shacks, palm trees, walkways and a mountain! It conjures up the tropical coastal location in Mexico where Irish American ex-priest, now tour guide, brings a group of ladies from a Baptist college in Texas. The tour isn’t going well; he’s already accused of sex with one of the underage girls and they are refusing to stay at the lodge run by Shannon’s friend and sometime lover Maxine, recently widowed.

It’s late season in 1940 and the only other guests are four German tourists who sing Nazi songs and rejoice in the bombing of London! Then New England lady Hannah, an artist, and her 97-year-old grandfather, ‘America’s oldest living poet’, turn up. Maxine is reluctant to accommodate them, but succumbs under pressure from Shannon, who is clearly attracted to Hannah. Their problems and their demons emerge and unfold on this one night, with sexual tension between Shannon and both Maxine and Hannah, but in very different ways, and an unspoken rivalry between the two women.

Clive Owen seemed to take a short while to get into his character, but was soon commanding the stage. Anna Gunn and Lia Williams are both excellent in their very different roles, Gunn as feisty promiscuous Maxine and Williams as gentle serene Hannah. There’s terrific support from Julian Glover as Hannah’s grandfather and Finty Williams as Mrs Fellowes, the church group leader who takes no prisoners. In addition to Rae Smith’s set, James Macdonald’s fine production boasts some great lighting from Neil Austin and an atmospheric soundscape by Max Pappenheim.

Good to see it again, done so well.

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Even though this isn’t a classic Tennessee Williams work, it’s the third major London revival in thirty years – Peter Hall’s with Vanessa Redgrave in 1988, Nicholas Hytner’s with Helen Mirren nineteen years ago, and now Tamara Harvey directing Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich in a co-production by the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Clwyd. It’s inspired by the Orpheus myth, but it’s an uneven play, with a dull first half and an action-packed second. It’s also not easy for modern audiences to swallow the racism, however authentic it is of the period. The production, though, is first class.

Lady is a southern belle of Sicilian descent. Her father, a street performer back home, came to the US and became a bootlegger in prohibition times. He was murdered when he crossed a line that was unacceptable to the white locals. After a relationship with David Cutere, who left her, Lady ends up marrying store owner Jabe Torrence. As the play begins, he returns from major surgery at the hospital in Memphis, but the prognosis isn’t good.

In comes drifter Valentine Xavier looking for work, and Lady employs him, the sexual chemistry obvious from the outset. The relationship develops whilst Jabe stays upstairs with his nurse and sisters, the locals gossip and David’s sister Carol, a persona non grata in this community, seeks to lure Val for herself. Other characters, including Jabe’s friends Pee Wee and Dog, Sheriff Talbott and his wife Vee and local gossips Beulah and Dolly, come and go and another, Uncle Pleasant, becomes a sort of narrator, who occasionally gives us TW’s stage directions.

The problem with the play is that the 75 minute first half is virtually all scene-setting, and plays out so slowly that it risks losing the audience. The second half is a complete contrast as Lady discovers more about her father’s murder, makes a confession of her own and Val, who just about every woman in the neighbourhood is now smitten by, is driven out of town by their men, as the play is propelled to its tragic conclusion.

With the audience on three sides and just the back of the shopfront as a backdrop and a few tables and chairs for props, the Menier space seems vast, and is used very well in this staging. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, led by terrific performances from Hattie Morahan as Lady and Seth Numrich as Val, with great chemistry between them. Jemima Rooper is superb as Carol and Carol Royle makes much of the strange character of god-fearing Vee. The supporting roles are all well cast; I was particularly impressed by Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson as gossips Beulah & Dolly.

Despite the play’s problems, the fine production and exceptional performances make it worth seeing again.

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This 1948 Tennessee Williams play immediately followed the much more successful A Streetcar Named Desire, but it took 58 years to get to London, a 2006 transfer from Nottingham to the West End which was pulled early. The director of this revival staged the only other London production, at Southwark Playhouse in 2012, but this is a new one. It’s typical TW fare, set in the deep south at the beginning of the 20th century, a minister’s daughter having a troubled relationship with the son of the doctor next door, who is about to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

The design appears to take its lead from Alma’s musicality, an arc of nine pianos each with a metronome on top. In front, a shallow pit strewn with earth two steps down. Impressionistic rather than realistic, and with music and a soundscape fully utilising the pianos, it’s highly atmospheric and sensuous, totally in keeping with the material.

Alma and John dance around each other, repressed emotions getting in the way of their real feelings. He starts a doomed relationship with a Mexican girl with a dubious but rich dad and much later with the much younger Nellie. Before Alma knows about the latter, she lets her guard down and reveals her true feelings, but its too late.

I was mesmerised by both Patsy Ferran as Alma and Matthew Needham as John, both performances emotionally raw. Ankana Vasan delivers beautifully stylised dance-influenced performances as Rosa and Nellie and Seb Carrington, in an auspicious professional debut, plays some mean piano as well as playing young travelling salesman Archie, who’s in the right place when Alma realises John will never be hers. The doubling-up of roles works OK, except for Forbes Masson as both dads, preacher and doctor, carrying a bible to signify which; I think it would have been better to have two actors here.

Rebecca Frecknall’s staging, Tom Scutt’s design, Lee Curran’s lighting and Angus MacRae’s compositions combine to create something very fresh from timeless material. A must-see.

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This late 50’s Tennessee Williams play started out as a one-act, two-character piece, until he bolted on another play called Pink Bedroom to form the second act. In this production, you can see the join. The part of the faded movie star, written for Tallulah Bankhead, has always attracted star actresses. I saw Lauren Bacall play it 32 years ago in the West End and Kim Cattrall played her in the last London outing at the Old Vic. Here we have American stage and film actress Marcia Gay Harden, with another American Brian J Smith hot-footing it from his superb turn in The Glass Menagerie in the West End. I assumed, with only a three-week Chichester run, it was West End or Broadway bound.

Chance Wayne is a gigolo and his latest customer is Hollywood’s Alexandra Del Lago, travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis (was TW taking the piss?!). Their booze and drug fuelled journey West stops off in his Mississippi home town of St. Cloud so that he can see the love of his life, Heavenly(!). Unbeknown to him, he gave her an STD when he was last back and this resulted in a life-changing medical condition. Oh, and his mother has died and been given an undignified burial by charitable contributions. He’s not good at leaving contact details. Heavenly’s dad is standing for political office on a somewhat disingenuous ticket disguising his racism and they get caught up in the campaign and the revenge plotted by Heavenly’s brother Tom.

It’s not one of TW’s best and the two acts really are a contrast. It does come alive in the second, but it’s sometimes farfetched and overly melodramatic in writing and too reverential and melodramatic in Jonathan Kent’s production. The entire first act takes place in a hotel bedroom, and its asking a lot of the Chichester main stage to create such an intimate setting. The hotel bar scene which takes up much of the second act opens it up, but also shows up the differences. Anthony Ward’s design is excellent, as are the performances, if a bit OTT in the TW way, with Richard Cordery as Boss Finley and Graham Butler as Tom Finlay deserving mention alongside the star pairing.

I’ve never been in such a small audience at Chichester – less than a quarter full, I’d say – which is a puzzle, and a shame for our American guests, who deserve better. I doubt we’ll see it in London, but maybe Broadway? I’ve had a lot of better TW experiences, but I don’t regret the trip.

 

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This much lauded revival of Tennessee Williams’ autobiographical first hit has travelled from Harvard to Broadway & the Edinburgh Festival en route to the West End, with two of its original cast staying with it. The Director and Designer are our own John Tiffany and Bob Crowley. It’s my fourth production in just over twenty years and that may be why I’m less euphoric than most.

The Wingfield family have fallen on hard times since Mr Wingfield deserted them. They live in an apartment in St Louis. Mother Amanda is a southern belle, a former debutante, who forever reminisces about her past. Her children are both her whole life and a disappointment to her. Son Tom works in a warehouse and escapes regularly from the confines of his stifling home life to ‘the movies’. His sister Laura has a small disability, though she’s referred to as ‘a cripple’, and seems to be somewhat unstable. She dropped out of high school and college and now sits at home tending and playing with her collection of glass animals. Amanda is obsessed with marrying off Laura and is thrilled when Tom brings hime a ‘a gentleman caller’, his more successful colleague Jim. At first Laura is too shy and withdrawn to engage with them and join in the dinner, but Jim turns out to be an obsession from her past and things begin to go a lot better – until Jim drops a bombshell and upsets both Laura and Amanda and provokes Tom’s planned departure for pastures new.

Bob Crowley’s beautiful impressionistic set, gorgeously lit by Natasha Katz,  has a fire escape rising to the heavens with stairs down beneath the stage emphasising the location, though from the front stalls I didn’t fully appreciate his design coup until I walked to the front of the stage at the end. John Tiffany’s staging, with ‘movement’ from regular collaborator Steven Hoggett, has a light touch with the pivotal second half scene between Laura and Jim masterly, but I didn’t engage with it emotionally. Cherry Jones as Amanda and Brian J Smith as Jim are hugely impressive, perhaps because they are the two stayers. Though we only see him in the second half, I thought Smith lifted the production. Michael Esper, fresh from his star turn in Lazarus, didn’t quite do it for me and Kate O’Flynn’s Laura was sometimes too squeaky and overly fey.

It’s a better production than the misguided one at the Young Vic six or seven years ago and as good as the last West End outing directed by Rupert Goold’s and starring Jessica Lange a few years before that, but it doesn’t live up to Sam Mendes Donmar production (will anything ever?) just over twenty years ago and it looks like that’s my curse; it stops me joining in the euphoria, even though I much admired it. Still, I’m glad I caught it and would certainly recommend it.

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I missed last year and curtailed the year before, so this is my first full week in Edinburgh for three years, which may be why I enjoyed it so much. It seemed like a vintage year, with an extraordinarily high 70% hit rate of great shows and only two bummers out of 26.

The seemingly insatiable supply of monologues continued, with seven of the 13 plays falling into this category. Despite my ambivalence, even dislike, of them, there were some real crackers, led by Sherman Cymru’s Iphigenia in Splott, an extraordinary take on Greek Tragedy with a stunning performance by Sophie Melville. Canadian genius Robert Lepage was back with another of his imaginative, innovative solo shows, this time 887 blended memories of his youth with material about memory itself. Comedian Mark Steel‘s show was, like Mark Thomas’ wonderful Bravo Figaro a few years back, a biographical story – in this case how he found out about his real parents. It was moving, poignant and very very funny. The fourth 5-star show was another flight of imagination, this time The Anomotion Show with percussionist Evelyn Glennie playing in the 17th century courtyard of George Heriot School whilst the live painting of Maria Rud was projected onto its walls. Brilliant. The final day produced not one but two gems, starting with Duncan McMillan’s extraordinarily engaging and captivating one-man play about depression, Every Brilliant Thing, brilliantly performed by Jonny Donahue, which I’ve been trying to catch for some time. Our one and only opera ended the trip with the most inventive and original Die Zauberflote from Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with our own theatre genius’ 1927. Animation, performance and music in complete harmony.

The Traverse continued its trailblazing, hosting the National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a rude and hugely funny play with music that followed convent school girls on a school outing (bender) to a singing competition in Edinburgh, with six very talented young actresses and a female band, directed and designed by women! and Vanishing Point’s outstanding, creative take on dementia, Tomorrow. They also hosted young Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s latest unsettling piece, A Game of You, where I was observed, interviewed and imitated before observing myself, and leaving with a DVD of my experience! Their other two shows fared less well, with Christians, a debate about hell, hard for a non-believer to engage with (though superbly staged and performed, with a 24-piece choir) and another monologue, Crash, which was clever but didn’t captivate like some of the others.

Musical high’s included Lennon: Through A Glass Onion, which showcased his songs – sung and played by a duo – interspersed with quotes from the man himself, Antonio Forcione (again!) with his brilliant Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale, hugely enthusiastic five-piece accapella group Simply Soweto and Hackney Colliery Band, who weren’t at all what I was expecting (a brass band!) but whose rhythmic jazz funk was infectious late-night fun. Musical Theatre featured, with enterprising amateur productions of The Addams Family and Sunshine on Leith, neither of which have yet had London outings though both deserve them.

More solo turns, with Jim Cartwright’s Raz, about preparing for, and going out on, a night out, performed brilliantly by the playwright’s son James, contrasting with stand-up comedian Mark Watson‘s highly strung but hysterical Work In Progress. Then there was 10x10x10 where ten comedians did ten monologues written by ten other comedians – except  there were only six, as they split it into two shows, and I can’t tell you who wrote or performed them, except Jo Caulfield who did one. Not bad, though. The big disappointment was Tony’s Last Tape, where an interesting life was made deadly dull.

Other Welsh contributions included Ghost Dance, a highly creative piece of physical theatre but with a confusing narrative comparing a native American plight with a Welsh one. There was innovative use of a smart phone app for English dialogue and subtitles and more polystyrene than you’ve ever seen in one place. Not a lot to say about a rather amateur take on (part of) the folk tale The Mabinogion, except to say I blame Judith!

The Missing Hancock’s featured two lost scripts staged as if they were being recorded for radio, with occasional ad libs, by an exceptional cast. I’d enjoyed them on the radio and I enjoyed them live too. Favourite playwright Jack Thorne’s sexually explicit, harrowing but brilliant play The Solid Life of Sugar Water was another theatrical highlight with two fine performances and, unusually on the fringe outside the Traverse, a great design. Finally, a novel immersive staging of a rare Tennessee Williams play, Confessional, where you are in a seaside bar with the dysfunctional characters partaking of a beer or two with them. Not a great play, but inventively staged.

The usual diversity with higher quality this year. No doubt some will appear elsewhere, so now you know what to catch.

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