Returning to the Hampstead Theatre where it premiered in 1967, Tennessee William’s The Two Character Play is not one of the American playwright’s best known plays. And yet, this revival directed by Sam Yates proves to be a stunning expression of the terrifying power of theatre: splendorous, cathartic, psychological, but also uncanny, obscure, spectral. Bafflingly profound, Yate’s production is a heartfelt and haunting celebration of the theatrical.
It’s a play within a play and a play about plays. Brother and sister Clare (Kate O’Flynn) and Felice (Zubin Varla) arrive at a theatre in an ‘unspecified locality’ only to realise the rest of their company has abandoned them. Cue some of that wafty, Williams dialogue:
Clare: Where is Everybody?
Felice: Everybody is somewhere, Clare.
Clare: Some necessary things are impossible.
Felice: And some impossible things are necessary.
But there’s humour here too. Williams pushes the formula to its absurdity with a knowing grin. Felice convinces a grouchy, impatient Clare to perform his play, The Two-Character Play, wherein they are agoraphobic siblings (also named Clare and Felice of course) struggling with the trauma of their parents’ murder/suicide in the fictitious Southern town, New Bethesda. O’Flynn’s Clare, as Clare, dishes out the following line in a syrupy drawl: ‘Sometimes notices aren’t — noticed’. Steeped in a certain European-American naturalism, including Williams’s own past work, the play speaks to and pokes fun at its own lineage (a living room drama where Checkhov’s gun makes an appearance).
In collaboration with a brilliant team, Yates layers that referentiality with smart, skilful choices that clarify this dense text. As Clare and Felice from New Bethesda, O’Flynn and Varla put on hilariously overblown Southern accents, but switch back to Received Pronunciation whenever they jump out of The Two Character Play. Yates also adds some slapstick, farce-like humour as O’Flynn and Varla juggle with their characters-within-characters: a broken soap bubble that ought to be intact, an upstage turn that ought to be a staircase. And O’Flynn’s mutable, anxious Clare nicely complements Varla’s Felice, a sober, intense wallflower. Through an understated rendition of Love Me Tender (showcasing Varla’s beautiful voice), they triumph in establishing a lovingly fraught sibling relationship. Their accomplished performances ground the more enigmatic sequences and allow them to lift off into the other-worldly: a nostalgic dance beautifully directed by Malik Nashad Sharpe evokes the characters’ doomed desire to return (if ever it even existed) to a childlike realm of play, pure and golden.
What is at play here though is a deep awareness of the complexities of performance. O’Flynn and Varla are surrounded by theatrical equipment: rigs, paint cans, flats, cameras, and mixing boards fill Rosanna Vize’s cavernous design that foregrounds the metatheatricality of the text. It’s not always clear what on stage is in use and what’s decorative. Akhila Krishnan’s video design, which offers sporadic live-streaming of the two actors, and Dan Balfour’s destabilizing sound further complicates the boundaries of performance. At one point, Clare says to Felice: ‘The worst thing that’s disappeared in our lives is being aware of what’s going on in our lives’. In some ways, The Two Character Play is a cautionary tale about the dangers of performativity, and how slippage between performance and reality, without any sense of that slippage, can create a kind of prison. An empty theatre can be a terrifying place.
It’s an entirely relevant tale to our age of constant performativity (on TikTok or on Zoom) and it’s often uncanny how Williams’s play feels so utterly contemporary. There’s the odd time the metatheatricality lands a little too heavily, and some might find Williams’s sentiment a bit too sentimental. But Yates marries Williams’s lyricism with a deep examination of what theatre is and can be, again a particularly relevant topic as theatres reopen their stages. Felice speaks to the ‘eccentricities of the time’ as he makes excuses to the audience regarding their ‘unexpected difficulties’, ie. their limited set and lack of company. He defends himself: ‘but being artists of the theatre we have been long prepared for working under unexpected conditions’. The mask-muffled chuckles from the audience say it all.
The Two Character Play is at Hampstead Theatre till 28th August. More info here.