Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director Sam Yates
Tennessee Williams was a dramatist who had a gift for finding intriguing titles to entice audiences into his plays, but it would seem that inspiration eventually deserted him. The title of this play, which received its World Premiere at Hampstead Theatre in 1967, at very least gives a factually accurate description of what to expect, but, once the action gets underway, basic expectations are defied over and over again.
Director Sam Yates’ revival continues Hampstead’s season of looking back at its landmark productions and it is being performed to socially distanced audiences throughout its run. The Two Character Play is, in fact, a play within a play, being staged when an audience is waiting and only two actors have turned up “due to the eccentricities of the time”. Disruption of theatre for such a reason is something that we can easily relate to right now.
The actors are siblings, Clare (Kate O’Flynn) and Felice (Zubin Varla). Hampstead’s large stage is opened out to its full expanse as the pair arrives, designer Rosanna Vize having littered it with an upright piano, props, part-built scenery and all the inanimate ingredients that go to make theatre. Playfully, Felice dons a wig and, through the characters, Williams begins to explore parallels between life and art, reality and fantasy. The writer seems to be bringing to theatre the mysterious and introspective style associated with Federico Fellini in 1960s cinema; this is emphasised further in Yates’ production, when songs from Italy and other European countries are scattered throughout.
O’Flynn and Varla, thespians playing thespians, throw themselves full-heartedly into their roles, knowing that the structure of the piece gives them licence to overact at will. The fictional actors’ relationship is fragile but mutually dependant, mirroring the relationship between the characters in the play which they perform. For that play, they assume distinct Louisiana accents, playing two people trapped inside a house and incapable of leaving it.
The play within a play is an undisguised parody of Williams’ own greatest successes, building in themes of dysfunctional family ties, confinement and social taboos. Much of the playwright’s early work is thought to reflect his personal frustrations and turmoil, so it is enlightening to learn that, by the mid-60s, he could have been looking back in amusement. However, a thin line separates self-mockery from self-indulgence and Williams crosses it often, allowing scenes to drift off at tangents or drag on for far too long.
Yates’ production is suitably shambolic, but inventive, using tricks of modern theatre to enhance the writer’s themes. For all its many flaws and its often irritating quirkiness, the work possesses a magnetic pull that keeps drawing us back to it and our enduring fascination with Williams himself is the obvious explanation for this. The play is undoubtedly an oddity, but it is an engaging one.
Runs until 28 August 2021