Last Updated on July 28, 2021
Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Two Character Play’
Sam Yates leaves no theatrical element unused in Tennessee Williams’ unique and complex meta-theatre.
“Tonight there’ll have to be a lot of improvisation, but if we’re both lost in the play, the bits of improvisation won’t matter at all, in fact they may make the play better.”
This play, appropriately for our time, is about confinement. This word, when uttered by Felice (Zubin Varla), sends his sister Clare (Kate O’Flynn) into a bout of hysteria. Like many of Tennessee Williams’ most famous works, The Two Character Play, returning to the Hampstead Theatre where it premiered in 1967, is about the intense experiences that occur in confined spaces and the hysteria that accompanies them. However, unlike the characteristic realism of Williams’ other plays, The Two Character Play substitutes realism for dreamlike uncertainty and complicated meta-theatre. Sam Yates’ direction leans into this entirely, employing every theatrical device in the book to create a disturbing, complex and unique production of total theatre.
The production opens on the half-built set of a play. “So far only parts of the set have arrived”, Felice informs Clare. They have been deserted by their theatre company (“You and your sister are insane” reads a letter signed by the company), but Felice is determined to put on a show. They choose the only play in their repertoire which can be performed by just the two of them – Felice’s “The Two Character Play”. And from then on, the audience must follow the two siblings as they move seamlessly between the play and the play-within-the-play.
Felice assures Clare that all will be fine as long as they are “lost in the play”. Yet the production does all it can to make sure the audience is not lost in it. Felice frequently puts in a new tape to change the music or operates the lighting visible to the audience on the side of the stage. They hold invisible props and alternate between their Southern accents and their British ones when there is a hitch in their rag-tag production. Clare plays a loud C# on the upright piano to indicate to Felice that she is skipping out some of the original script. Clare does this so often that Felice resorts to sitting on the closed piano to prevent her from cutting out more of his own writing.
And yet, despite the intentional shaking of the audience out of the play-within-the-play, I still got lost in it. This is testament, of course, to Williams’ writing, but also to the versatile acting of Zubin Varla and Kate O’Flynn. O’Flynn is utterly convincing as both a vulnerable woman from the American South and as a tired, disturbed British actress. Her comic timing is impeccable. Varla demonstrates a masterclass in the dramatic arts: acting, singing, dancing and playing music. Some of the most touching moments in the play are when Varla and O’Flynn harmonise together, singing with Varla’s piano or guitar accompaniment.
Sam Yates’ direction takes literally the idea of being “lost in the play”. Sound effects of coughing (slightly anxiety-inducing in the Covid age), giggling and audience-murmuring are played through the speakers, challenging the audience to identify what is real and what is not – what is part of the play and what is part of reality. This is faithful to Williams’ writing, which aims to blur the lines between the lives of the characters played by Felice and Clare, and Felice and Clare themselves. Sometimes the added sound effects can be distracting or, at the end, slightly over the top. However, the performances are strong enough and Yates’ direction regarding how the characters move around the set and, literally, move the set around, is interesting enough to make for compelling theatre.
It is a unique and convoluted play, but Yates makes it as easy to follow as Williams’ writing allows. The relationship between the siblings, modelled on Williams’ own complex relationship with his sister Rose, is brought to life by “total theatre”, something that Clare mocks Felice for trying to achieve in the play. Sound effects, music, props, cameras, lights and every inch of the stage is used to its full potential. Credit must go to Rosanna Vize for her set design.
I understand why this play was not a critical success to the same extent as A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams’ most famous work, when it debuted at the Hampstead Theatre in 1967 (the only time a Tennessee Williams play premiered outside the US). One should not expect the realism that made Williams famous. What one gets instead is a dreamlike, challenging and unique play. Williams called it “the very heart of my life”, and one gets the sense that this is a play so personal that only the writer himself could properly understand it. But, to the extent that such a strange, disconcerting self-examination can be understood, this is facilitated by Sam Yates’ direction and the virtuosic performances of Varla and O’Flynn. This production, marking a post-Covid return to the theatre, leaves no theatrical element unused. The Two Character Play is a highly ambitious and successful production.The Two Character Play runs until the 28th August at the Hampstead Theatre.
The Two Character Play
London NW3 3EU
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
For more about what’s on at the Hampstead Theatre, check our preview of the summer season