Friday, June 25, 2010

The second little-known play I have seen this week at the National Theatre was SPRING STORM, one of the first plays written by Tennessee Williams.

I had wanted to see this production which started at Northampton's Royal & Derngate Theatre but as it was in the Cottesloe it had sold-out thanks to the advance booking knobstains. I had hoped that it and it's companion piece, Eugene O'Neill's BEYOND THE HORIZON, would transfer to a bigger space but that hadn't transpired. Constant Reader, imagine my surprise when, while idly checking for an odd matinee seat, I found a couple of tasty H row seats going begging for the next evening! See... always worth double-checking these things. Owen braved yet another Williams play although his current batting average after 3 productions was liked 1, disliked 2.

Although SPRING STORM does betray a youthful over-egging of the play's pudding - Tennessee was 26 at the time with two plays already staged by a St. Louis am-dram society - it was still great to see and to realise that the themes of survival, lust and despair that are so prevalent in his later works were there from the beginning. It also helped that Laurie Sansom's production was in itself hugely entertaining.
The play takes place over a few days in a small Mississippii River town in early 1937 and the action centres on a wilful 22 year-old, Heavenly Critchfield. She is the only daughter of a respected Southern Old Family who are now living in reduced circumstances, always keeping an eye on the cotton share price.

Her overbearing mother Esmeralda refuses to let her current surroundings sway her from her rigid believe in her family's noble traditions while ruling her household with steely determination much to the chagrin of Heavenly's placid father - already troubled with a recurring stomach complaint that bodes ill - as well as his widowed sister Lila.Unknown to Esmeralda, Heavenly has already "given herself" to the rough and ready Dick Miles who wants to get out and see the world and is urging Heavenly to join him. However, much to Esmeralda's joy, the scion of the town's leading family Arthur Shannon has returned from being educated in England and wishes to start courting Heavenly. Heavenly bridles at the pressure being put on her to marry for money but goes along with Shannon's attentions.

However Shannon, who has loved Heavenly since their schooldays where he was hated for being studious, still has the the memory of her laughing at him as he was bullied. Unknown to Arthur, he is also the object of quiet desire by Hertha Neilson, a bookish lonely girl who works in the town library. However, like in AFTER THE DANCE, the events that take place on the night of a summer party change the lives of the four young people forever.As I said, Tennessee's youthful desire to leave nothing uncrossed or undotted sometimes leads to the play running away with itself but on the whole I enjoyed immensely. The joy for us fans of his work was seeing the seeds being sown for later plays: refined Heavenly's pleasure with her manual worker lover echoes Stella with Stanley in STREETCAR and her chance of a secure if unexciting possible husband echoes Blanche and Mitch in the same play; Esmeralda has traces of the controlling Southern mothers of Amanda Wingfield in THE GLASS MENAGERIE (even down to the Jonquils) and Mrs. Venable in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER; Heavenly and Arthur's painful courtship in the parlour appears to be a dry run for Laura and The Gentleman Caller in THE GLASS MENAGERIE while Heavenly's dread of enduring the living death of the Old Maid, sitting alone on a porch waiting for a gentleman caller who will never come, reminded me of Blanche's bitter memories in STREETCAR of living alone at Belle Reve with the squabbling old women. And of course there were the sudden flashes of pure Tennessee prose such as Heavenly telling Arthur about Lila's penchant for saving fallen rose petals "she puts them in sachets to perfume her handkerchiefs, the scent of old maid's memories" or Hertha's heartbroken wail of "Why did God have to give homely girls the same dreams as pretty girls?" Mind you the script also contained a great line shouted by Heavenly at her shocked mother "I'm going to be married to Dick... by a black preacher... and live on a houseboat!" Surely the greatest line John Waters never wrote for Divine.

Laurie Sansom's direction was as fluid as the Mississippi moving the action swiftly around Sara Perks' standing set, a promontory fashioned from a collapsed house with the playing areas littered with debris, a constant reminder of the fickle nature of the river which could easily sweep lives and houses away with no warning.The company have been performing this and the O'Neill play since last October so unsurprisingly the whole company had a unity of style and commitment which helped the feel of a close-knit onstage community.

Liz White was a hypnotic Heavenly, a girl who knows she has a power over men but who does not know what to do for the best. Skittish, imperious, hilariously gauche and wildly impassioned, White captured all these moods without becoming a caricature - at times she resembled a young Lee Remick which is no bad thing for any actress - and her final capitulation to fate had a tragic sadness.

It is almost certain that parts of her character were inspired by Tennessee's older sister Rose. It is sadly ironic that as he was writing the play while attending a playwriting course in Iowa, back in his St. Louis family home Rose - who had declined over several years with increasingly manic behaviour - had been diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia and lobotomized with the consent of their parents.Although the role of Esmeralda was written with a furious pen - based almost to the letter on his mother it seems - Jacqueline King played the role wonderfully, with a unbending genteel ferocity which reaches it's zenith when she finds herself alone with Arthur Shannon in the parlour while her daughter is upstairs loudly packing to run off with Dick. She jabbered, prattled and kept up a non-stop stream of inconsequential chatter to distract his attention before exiting, still chattering as she leaves. It brought the house down. She was delightfully partnered by Joanna Bacon as her amiable but more empathetic sister-in-law Lila.

The role of the unloved but loving Hertha was touchingly played by Anna Tolputt who spiralled wonderfully into despair after being confronted alone in the Library by a drunken Arthur who trashes the room and her last hope of happiness. I would also like to mention Janice McKenzie who, as the head librarian Birdie, in this one scene created a character one knew instantly and wanted to see more of.Although well-played, the male members of the cast - Michael Thomson as Dick, Michael Malarkey as Arthur and James Jordan as Heavenly's father - were all saddled with under-written roles, only there to give the powerful women in the play something to react to.

I suspect of these two plays that Rattigan's AFTER THE DANCE will now be revived more often but I am grateful to have been able to see them both in such great productions. It would be heartening to see some more of Tennessee's work other than the usual STREETCAR, GLASS MENAGERIE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF trilogy, no matter how great those plays are. Enough of his work from the early 1960s onwards have the taint of being 'problematic' but surely what these two productions prove is that given a director's insight into the text anything is possible.

Gore Vidal is quoted in the SPRING STORM programme as saying that what made Tennessee Williams a great writer was his channeling of his life into his plays - that unhappy love affairs or family memories could be exorcised by the arranging of them into scenes, words, themes so ultimately they were his, and not God's, to bring to life and to own. I think much the same, in his own way, can be said of Terence Rattigan.

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