Theatre review - The Two Character Play

Tennessee Williams spent over ten years writing the partly autobiographical The Two Character Play and called it ‘the very heart of my life’. In its rawness, it feels like an early work, but is actually one of Williams later plays. He was already a star, but drink and drugs were taking their toll. It premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1967.

Williams was haunted all his life by his sister Rose, who inspired some of his female characters. Her erratic behaviour as a teenager developed into paranoia and depression – in her twenties, she was institutionalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Two actors, a brother and sister team, Felice (Zubin Varla) and Clare (Kate O’ Flynn), are attempting to perform a play. They’ve been abandoned by the rest of their troupe and left with an empty stage and an expectant audience. They decide to perform the most appropriate work in their repertoire: The Two Character Play.

Felice and Clare find refuge in playacting. They return again and again to Felice’s flawed script as an escape from their weary existence. After a while, we are not sure if they will ever leave the drama in which they deliberately lose themselves.

Initially, Felice comes across as the most vulnerable. He is determined to perform the play at all cost, while Clare is determined to make cuts. Gradually we realise Clare - terrified of shadows - is the most fragile of the siblings.

In Rosanna Vize’s terrific design, Hampstead’s stage is exposed and scattered with the accoutrements of a theatre set. There are lighting rigs, a piano, mic, a sound desk, a wig, a gun... Film footage on the back wall reveals two happy children. Despite their antagonism towards each other as adults, the siblings need each other. Theatre confines and liberates the pair. As it did for Williams.

The Two Character Play is an unadulterated view of the sister Williams clearly adored, but felt unable to help. All kudos to director Sam Yates and Hampstead for recognising the play’s importance, what it reveals about Williams, and for giving us this welcome revival.

Originally published by Camden New Journal 

Until August 28