Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great American playwright Tennessee Williams.
Some of the most famous post-war plays were written by Williams, largely in the 1950s. Some great actors made breakthrough, iconic performances in the plays on stage and on screen: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman amongst them. Williams won the Pulitzer prize twice and achieved many other awards, and yet his reputation has perhaps dimmed over the years - the view is his later work in particular was disappointing.
This late play was never performed in his lifetime, or indeed ever published. The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburne certainly is to be congratulated for putting it on the stage for the very first time, in such an enchanting production. As it was the world premiere I thought I had to attend: something to add to my collection of theatrical experiences: the world premiere of one of a great dramatist’s plays - actually on his 100th birthday, no less. They don’t make them like this any more.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy myself so much - I saw Rose Tattoo at the NT a few years back and really hated all the simmering poetic sentimentality (and that was an early work!)
And INGDTADOS has all the classic Williams’ hallmarks - a potent, virile, sensual yet feckless and inert male in a doomed yet compelling relationship with a downwardly mobile idealistic female unable to maintain traction on reality and clearly fated never to achieve her ambitions. Seedy glamorous New Orleans surroundings, self-delusion, sex, the threat of violence, over-the-top melodramatic backstory, poetry, terminal illness - it’s all there. However, the new element in all of this is that it forms part of a play within a play.
This is all brilliantly staged, with the play’s director and author suddenly emerging from the actual audience to argue over the lines - we are witnessing the final read-through before previews start. The actors complain about their lines - “Who talks like this?” - Tennessee is clearly relishing getting back at his theatrical foes.
By highlighting the theatricality of the piece Williams cleverly creates a space which privileges the drama; to some extent protecting it from the critics. It’s allowed to be a conflation of hackneyed old tropes, seeking to shock only by upping the ante (the male lead is practically nude for virtually the entire play; there is quite a lot of sex -the actors complain about the sex scene; the director argues with the playwright about it - “it will scare off backers”)
As a commentary on his own work it’s completely fascinating and it has the contrary effect of making the melodrama more emotionally affecting. I only wish he developed this strand of the play some more - there are slight, tentative hints of Williams’s identification with his heroines, especially towards the end, which are really evocative and promising. However, as it stands the dramatic framing is not thematically developed and only tangentally touches the play-within-a-play: all too easily, one can imagine the drama existing without the framing elements. And one of the stand-out set-pieces - an incompetent stage-manager’s hissy fit right after missing a crucial cue - threatens to completely derail the action. As amusing as it is, and as much as the audience absolutely loved Graham Dickson’s performance as Hilary the stage-manager, Williams the playwright should either have cut this completely or integrated it more organically into the action of the piece. I think it’s worth comparing this to Michael Frayn’s meta-theatre play Noises Off, where the back stage / on stage action is completely seamless and forms an organic whole, something this Tennessee Williams play doesn’t quite achieve, even as it tantalisingly hints at what could have been.
Which is not to say it is unworthy - I loved this production. The intimate, low-key space and delicate design tremendously enhanced the experience of the play. All the acting was superb: Lewis Hayes was suitably Brandoesque physically and was very natural emotionally as Tye. Shelley Lang as Jane was also magnificently cast, in the tradition of Vivienne Leigh and Elisabeth Taylor. And Keith Myers as the author gave an authoritative Tennessee Williams.
All in all, a terrific birthday present for Tennessee Williams.