WRITER: TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
DIRECTOR: SAM YATES
CAST: KATE O'FLYNN; ZUBIN VARLA
HAMPSTEAD THEATRE, LONDON NW3 until 28 AUGUST 2021
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
The later plays of Tennessee Williams are notoriously difficult, stemming from a period of grief and substance abuse in the playwright’s life. First performed at the Hampstead Theatre in 1967, The Two Character Play is overshadowed by the experiences of Williams’ sister Rose, who had spells of hospitalisation for mental illness, culminating in a lobotomy in the 1940s, rendering her unable to look after herself, or live independently for the rest of her life. Two years after the play’s London premiere, Williams had a complete breakdown. His state of mind can be glimpsed from his recollection of his creation’s first night at the Hampstead: ‘To tell you the truth, I was in no condition to notice much going on - I behaved abominably.’
Sam Yates’ production treads a careful line between presenting the swirling mental turmoil that gave birth to the The Two Character Play, and presenting a narrative the audience can follow and enjoy. The performance of Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla, as siblings Clare and Felice, pull off this tricky balancing act with great energy and style.
We first meet Felice trying to create order from a chaotic, black bin bag strewn stage. Occasionally he checks a console to modify stage and light effects. Clare breezes in, more concerned about tonight’s accommodation for their touring theatre company, than the business of putting on a play. It falls to Felice to break the news there will be no hotel, or fellow players, as they have gone, explaining their absence in a note: ‘Because you and your sister are insane.’
Faced with abandonment, and the attendant paralysing fear, the siblings perform The Two Character Play. In theory being immersed in the play will keep their minds off their deepest fears, but as The Two Character Play concerns a brother and sister trapped in their dead parents home, the performance exacerbates rather than soothes their increasing terror.
O’Flynn and Varla race about their makeshift stage set, creating make believe interior and exterior spaces, yet somehow always letting us know the increasing desperation of the characters behind the words. The piece is technically demanding, with the two actors having to slip between play and play with a play, and alternate from vivacity to melancholy. Choreography underlines their ability to act as one being, so even when their words are at loggerheads, their essential beings are welded together.
The conclusion is emotionally demanding, as it offers not deliverance or redemption, but compulsion to do whatever is within your immediate scope, however damaging in the long-term that may be. Lighting designer Lee Curran’s menacing shadows, enhance the sense of a mind under siege. This production of The Two Character Play brilliantly captures what it is to strain every sinew against mental disintegration, however futile you know the struggle will ultimately be.