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The Two Character Play, Hampstead Theatre London

Potent revival of Tennessee Williams’s bleak portrayal of mental breakdown

BACK at Hampstead Theatre where it premiered in 1967, The Two Character Play by Tennessee Williams is a rarely performed study of the hell that is insanity.

It emerges from the late 1960s when the playwright himself was close to breakdown and it is emphatically not a cheery night out.

Yet is a piece to be reckoned with, though at the outset the play has a coolness that seems to lack much of the deep, empathetic quality for which its writer is renowned.

In it, a brother and sister of middling age — speaking in unexpected English accents, though Williams is master of the Deep South vernacular — are preparing to enact a play in a forlorn and abandoned theatre.

The run of the show is interminable and now all support crew have abandoned them so they must do everything themselves.

The brother Felice is the writer of the play and sister Clare cuts and adapts the script at will. Together they inhabit misery.

When they act the play though, shifting almost metaphysically between players and characters, they break down reality’s walls and, Pirandello-like, challenge the substance of life itself.

As the two characters, deeply symbiotic yet mutually destructive, impart their desperate fear and loneliness, the drama emerging in a play within a play is pure Williams.

Stemming from his own relationship with a mentally damaged sister, already immortalised in his earlier masterpiece The Glass Menagerie, it approaches the matchless lyricism of the writer, his authenticity of time and place and his visceral capture of souls in torment. Here there is brilliance in abundance and a production to match.  

Sam Yates directs with a profound grasp of the work and a passion for it. His theatrical virtuosity brings moments of supreme poignancy and beauty, assisted magnificently by designer Rosanna Vize and Lee Curran (lighting), Dan Balfour (sound) and Akhila Krishnan (video).

Everything, from actor Zubin Varla’s (Felice) tantalising piano playing and Kate O’Flynn’s (Clare) insistent intrusion with the jarring C-sharp key to the visuals of video shadowing and exquisitely lit show-defining tableaux, contributes to a production of huge artistic merit.

Varla and O’Flynn — raging, cowering, struggling and desperate,  their contrasting voices forming a mesmeric music — perform exquisitely together: in the end, something of love is salvaged.

But the play is little performed and for a reason. Williams’s awful depression at the time pervades the piece and there are patches of unadulterated wretchedness that alienate rather than seduce the audience.

The play’s structure and style has the effect of distancing the audience at times, though they reveal the profound meaning of the work — life’s fractured quality and the elusiveness of sanity.

Some may find the production mystifying and even occasionally wearisome but the moments of pure theatrical genius make it worthwhile. A must for all theatre buffs and Williams fans.

Runs until August 28, box office: hampsteadtheatre.com.

MARY CONWAY

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