Life & Culture

Theatre review: The Two Character Play

Why was Tennessee Williams judged differently from his peers?



Not many theatres can say they premiered a Tennessee Williams play, and probably only one can outside the United States. The master himself was present at the Hampstead when his strange, eerie two-hander opened in 1967. It is said that he watched the production by the theatre’s founding artistic director James Roose-Evans while popping uppers and downers, so angst-ridden was the playwright.

In America Williams had recently failed to match the earlier successes A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was also drinking heavily after the death of his partner Frank Merlo. And yet if he was chasing those triumphs, structurally this play-within-a-play could not have been further from their realism.

Set on a shadowy theatre stage strewn with props and the semi-constructed set of a living room, its characters are actor siblings Clare (Kate O’Flynn) and Felice (Zubin Varla) who are touring a two character play about, well two siblings.

This secondary pair live in a house in the Southern states where their mother was shot by their father before he turned the gun on himself. Though adults, they are locked into the legacy of the event and terrified of leaving their home lest they encounter one of the judgmental neighbours who think they murdered their parents.

Williams mirrors this narrative with Felice and Clare’s increasingly absurdist circumstances. It emerges that they have been abandoned by the rest of their theatre company who have left a note declaring the duo to be insane.

At the brother’s behest they nevertheless continue with the performance. The line where the secondary play starts and the initial play stops becomes increasingly blurred, but Sam Yates’s vibrant production revels in this liminal quality with projected video summoning the childhoods of both sets of siblings.

Varla conveys a fevered intensity throughout and O’Flynn is a marvel, switching between the charisma of an actor out of character and Clare’s distraught and orphaned alter ego.

It may be that Williams was reaching for the new expressionistic forms established by Beckett, Pirandello and Pinter. And when Clare looks around the abandoned theatre and asks “Where is everybody?”, and Felice answers “Everybody is somewhere”, the exchange could have been plucked out of Waiting For Godot. But such was the reception for this play it seems theatregoers wanted Williams to stick to his greatest hits.

Unlike other dramatists who excelled in naturalism — say Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman broke a fair few theatrical conventions - Williams was refused the licence to explore.

It’s a shame because if the audience of the 1960s had looked harder they might have seen here much of what made his earlier plays so potent, particularly with Clare and her Southern orphaned alter ego, who must surely be drawn from Williams’s beloved and tragic real sister Rose, the inspiration for Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Blanche in Streetcar and Alma in Summer and Smoke.


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