The Two Character Play at Hampstead Theatre
The house lights remain on at the start of this play within a play, an ambiguous, little known work by Tennessee Williams. The writer is best known for such classics as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – both grounded in naturalism, but infused with a whimsical quality unique to their author. During his later career, Williams dabbled with the avant-garde and veered closer to Becket than the Southern domestic dramas that afforded him his fame. What is real and what is fantasy is the predominant question that prevails throughout The Two Character Play.
Seldom performed, this work exemplifies the change in style, while still feeling distinctively Tennessee Williams. Sam Yates directs this revival at the same theatre (it originally premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1967), with a carefully considered and respectful approach. The result suggests the playwright was ahead of his time. Thanks to compelling performances and a pacy production, audiences are offered a unique and profound theatrical experience quite unlike any other.
Siblings Clare and Felice are the abandoned actors of a theatre company, whose cast and crew have labelled them insane and walked away. Clare feels their planned performance should be cancelled, but Felice is of the mindset that the show must go on. Their only hope is The Two Character Play, which centres on two reclusive siblings trying to navigate life in the aftermath of their parents’ deaths: their father murdered their mother before taking his own life. Heavy subject matter, yes, but Williams instils the text with the deeply perceptive, melodramatic and occasionally melancholic dialogue he is known for. A play of such complexity is a tall order for any actor, however Zubin Varla and Kate O’Flynn more than rise to the challenge.
Clare is based on Williams’s own sister, who also gave inspiration to Laura in The Glass Menagerie. O’Flynn captures the childlike naivety of her character with aplomb. The actor complements Varla exceedingly and provides much in the way of humour, thanks to her precise, character-driven comic timing. She is always alluring and matches perfectly with the style and tone of Williams.
Zubin Varla almost echoes the unpredictability and concealed vulnerability of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. The use of a close-up camera projected behind the stage allows him to display an array of facial expressions, which convey his sheer dishevelment. Bounding between boy and man, the actor exudes a frantic energy that’s enthralling to watch.
Often absurd and erratic, this experimental play provides excellent results and reminds its audience of the longstanding genius of a playwright who was unafraid of examining the darker aspects of life. While Williams was in the depths of his alcoholism during the decade it took him to write the play, this production elicits a sobering sense of invigoration, wonder and nostalgia. A memorable experience.
The Two Character Play is at Hampstead Theatre from 17th July until 28th August 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.