A late Tennessee Williams play revived
50 years later at Hampstead Theatre
“You and your sister are – insane!”
There is a fascinating article in the Hampstead Theatre programme: an interview by Greg Ripley-Duggan with the theatre’s founding director James Roose-Evans about how a play by Tennessee Williams came to receive its world premiere at this theatre in 1967.
It all started when Roose-Evans cast a relatively unknown David Hemmings in Adventures in the Skin Trade about when the young Dylan Thomas first came to London and met a lot of eccentric people. The adaptation of the 1965 Dylan Thomas novel was by Andrew Sinclair. Two things happened as a consequence: Antonioni came to see the production twice and cast Hemmings in the film Blow Up and Tennessee Williams came twice and wrote to the director, “the fan letter of a lifetime”.
Roose-Evans and Tennessee Williams became friends and the Hampstead director was allowed to produce The Two Character Play. He cast Peter Wyngarde as Felice and Mary Ure as Clare. Tennessee Williams described this play as, “My most beautiful play since Streetcar, the very heart of my life.” That quote has since been criticised as raising expectations of the more modern play which was special to Tennessee Williams because it is about his sister Rose, but likening it to one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century.
It is interesting that Tennessee Williams compared The Two Character Play to Streetcar because the most obvious comparison is to The Glass Menagerie, the play he wrote about his damaged sister Rose. The Two Character Play is maybe a misnomer as it features two actors, who abandoned by the rest of the company stage a play with just two characters, also called Felice (Zubin Varla) and Clare (Kate O’Flynn).
It is a challenging play for the audience because the two scenarios merge and sometimes it is hard to tell whether we are in the inner or outer play. Both plays feature brother and sister. The precise stage directions are as poetic as the dialogue. “We see that he wears a bizarre shirt – figured with astrological signs – “period” trousers of soft woven fabric in slightly varying shades of grey: the total effect is theatrical and a bit narcissan.”
We meet Felice first in Rosanna Vize’s set which is back stage at a dilapidated, provincial theatre in the town of New Bethseda. There are at least three rows of stage lights and Felice is furiously dusting them. He is moving scenery around, raises the battery of lights and puts on different clothes and a long haired wig. Enter Clare. “There is a ghostly spill of light in the doorway and she has an apparitional look about her.”
They discuss the play they will act; she says that The Two Character Play never had an ending. They bicker about small things. Felice introduces the play within a play to the audience.
Brother and sister Felice and Clare have been left alone in their parents’ house after the death of their parents. The local paper has reported that their father killed their mother and then shot himself. Clare is agoraphobic. They have been left destitute, the phone has been cut off and they have no way of paying for groceries as their credit has run out.
Tennessee Williams often worked on plays that were less successful or less finished than he would have liked and the University of Texas in Austin has his archive of papers and rewrites. This play was rewritten for New York in 1973 and given the new title Out Cry but reverted at a later date to its original title.
In Act Two, Clare plays with a dolls house, these miniature items of furniture played for us on a video link on a huge screen and reminding us of the glass animals in that other play. They act their parents, he in a Trilby hat, she in a headscarf. The play strikes me as a portrait of co-dependency before the term was invented.
The director Sam Yates has chosen to video the scenes so the audience can often see a closeup of a face and the much smaller body of the other actor. An L shaped wall with a window will have one actor hanging out looking at the sunflowers while the other busies inside. The whole gives the scenes a ghostlike quality.
They dance the polka in a carefree moment but she talks about the revolver used to kill their parents being hidden in the house. The ending is cacophony of mystery and maybe madness.
Tennessee Williams was devoted to his sister Rose who was lobotomised, instigated by their mother, without his being consulted. She needed permanent care after that procedure, care which eventually he was able to afford to pay for. Some of the moments in The Two Character Play reflect the cruelty that Rose suffered at the hands of their parents.
I think this is a play that needs to be read as well as seen, or seen twice as, despite the excellent performances, from Zubin Varla and Kate O’Flynn, I could not listen to every word and watch the visual interaction and appreciate the poetry.
The Two Character Play
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Sam Yates
Director: Sam Yates
Designer: Rosanna Vize
Lighting Designer: Lee Curran
Sound Designer: Dan Balfour
Movement: Malik Nashad Sharpe
Video Director: Akhila Krishnan
Musical Director: Ben Holder
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes with an interval
Booking to 28th August 2021
London NW3 3EU
Phone: 020 7722 9301
Tube: Swiss Cottage
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at
on 26th July 2021