722 Toulouse Street was the location of the insalubrious rooming house in the Old Quarter of New Orleans where Tennessee Williams lodged in the late 1930s; the playwright made his encounters and experiences there the subject of several of his early short stories, and also of Vieux Carré, a play which he began drafting in 1938 but didn’t complete until the late 1970s. Starring Sylvia Sidney, the original Broadway production of Vieux Carré flopped, closing after just five performances in 1977, and the play has rarely been seen since. Swiftly transferring to the Charing Cross Theatre following its highly acclaimed run at the King’s Head last month, Robert Chevara’s revival can’t quite redeem the structural sloppiness of the piece. But it is nonetheless a spirited production that offers some considerable pleasures.
“The major theme of my writings,” Williams averred around the time of Vieux Carré’s opening, “is the affliction of loneliness.” Vieux Carré bears out that self-assessment, presenting a portrait of frustrated individuals all condemned to solitary confinement in their own skins and struggling to forge connections. A mixture of memory play and künstlerroman the piece concerns the inhabitants of the boarding house run by the volatile widow Mrs. Wire, as they are observed and recollected by the young Williams avatar, The Writer (Tom Ross-Williams). As The Writer begins to covet the stories of these individuals for his work, so most of them want something from him: whether sex (in the case of the predatory and pathetic ailing artist Nightingale), a “civilised conversation” (in the case of Jane, who’s shacked up with a studly ne’er-do-well) or a surrogate son, in the case of Mrs. Wire herself.
Infused with the ghosts of earlier (and better) Williams dramas – echoes of The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, Orpheus Descending and Suddenly Last Summer surface at various points – Vieux Carré teeters on the brink of self-parody throughout, the material feeling by turns undercooked and overheated. Alongside the overriding “affliction of loneliness,” Williams chucks an array of physical ailments into the mix – tuberculosis, leukaemia, and a cataract for starters – to ever-diminishing returns. And while it’s fascinating, and even moving, to find the playwright writing more frankly about homosexual experience than he’d been able to in his earlier work the increased explicitness doesn’t, alas, result in greater dramatic intensity.
Still, Chevara’s production finds the moments of truth in the scenario, and brings out the mixture of the lurid and the lyrical that characterizes the best encounters here. (Quoth the painter to The Writer after the latter describes his first sexual experience: “Love can happen like that. For one night only.”) With a set by Nicolai Hart-Hansen that provides what Williams envisaged as “a poetic evocation of the cheap rooming houses of the world,” the director’s restaging of the production for the new venue doubtless gives the action more space to breathe – and the actors more room for manoeuvre. Some decidedly rocky accents notwithstanding, the performances are mostly effective, with especially fine work from David Whitworth as the tubercular artist unwilling to accept the seriousness of his condition and from Samantha Coughlan as Jane, the society girl “betrayed by a sensual streak in my nature.”
Replacing Nancy Crane, who played the role at the King’s Head, Helen Sheals is excellent as the tyrannical landlady, conveying both the character’s cruelty and her weakness, while Eva Fontaine, as Mrs. Wire’s companion Nursie, and Anna Kirke and Hildegard Neil as the two elderly ladies starving to death in the basement, also maximise their small roles. Of the younger male actors, Paul Standell delivers the strongest performance as Jane’s boyfriend Tye, a swaggering, drug-addicted alpha male and homophobe, who’s nonetheless willing to go gay-for-pay. Overall, Chevara’s production doesn’t make the case for Vieux Carré as a lost Williams classic. But it’s a sterling revival and those who missed out on seeing it at the King’s Head will be glad to have the opportunity to catch it here.
The production runs until 1st September.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.