“What a remarkable tableau vivant”
Though some of Tennessee Williams’ works are considered amongst the finest plays ever written, his legacy as a truly great playwright is something that has developed posthumously. He continued to produce considerable amounts of writing until the day that he died in 1983 but its critical reception was increasingly poor and so much of the latter part of his body of work has remained neglected. His 1977 play Vieux Carré hasn’t been seen in London since 1978 (although part of it formed part of another Williams play I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark On Sundays which played at the Cock Tavern as part of a double bill of unperformed works) but now receives a rare revival at the King’s Head Theatre in north London.
Often, the delving into the little-performed parts of established playwrights’ back catalogues reveals a good reason as to why they have largely on the shelves, but Robert Chevara’s production shimmers with Southern heat and captivating character work to make this a rediscovery worth taking considerable note of. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set design wisely strips things back to distressed brick walls, maximising the space available into which three beds, a dinner table and a throw-covered grand piano are squeezed to evoke the rooming house of Mrs Wire, on 722 Toulouse in the French Quarter of New Orleans. We start with the figure of The Writer recalling the time he spent there and switch back in time to see him as a callow young man, newly arrived from St Louis and nervously struggling with his unfamiliar surroundings.
As The Writer slowly makes the acquaintance of his varied fellow residents and comes to terms with the reality of his own impoverished circumstances, Williams weaves together suggestions of all the lives contained within to create a moving tableau of human frailty and the loneliness that can come even when living in shared accommodation in a bustling city. From the ravenous, birdlike figures of Miss Carrie and Mary Maude (Hildegard Neil and Anna Kirke in beautifully affecting form) proudly trying to disguise their scavenging, to the troubled relationship between the forthright Jane and her no-good hunk of beefcake of a boyfriend Tye (Samantha Coughlan and Paul Standell connecting physically most effectively). From the long suffering and soon-to-retire Nursie (Eva Fontaine) to the lecherous, lascivious but not long for this world artist Nightingale (David Whitworth relishing the bitingly acerbic wit). The Writer’s surroundings slowly inspire him to creative and personal awakenings and the realisation that this is but just another stop on the journey ahead, rather than the destination.
Tom Ross-Williams invests The Writer with a reluctant but emergent charm, as his confidence slowly grows so too do his interactions as warmth and enthusiasm flourish in him, but it is Nancy Crane as the volatile landlady Mrs Wire whose relentless energy drives much of the production. From her questioning of the morals of her tenants to the hopelessly grand dreams she has for the future, Crane is a whirlwind of liveliness but this is hiding much pain at her heart and the dependency that grows as her quasi-maternal relationship with The Writer becomes increasingly entangled becomes ultimately quite moving. There’s no pretending that Vieux Carré is Tennessee Williams at his best, but what it does offer is a fascinating further insight into his uncanny ability to create characters and moods that creep under the skin and linger long in the memory, even whilst not being part of a particularly striking story. Allied to the intimacy of the King’s Head, Chevara’s astute production and an excellent cast, this ought to be become one of the hottest tickets on the fringe.