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Photo credit: Kate O'Flynn and Zubin Varla (Photo by Marc Brenner)

'The Two Character Play' at Hampstead Theatre brings 'new life' to the Tennessee Williams work

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Tennessee Williams's strange meta-theatrical play has been given an immensely daring revival at the Hampstead Theatre, where this dense two-hander had its world premiere in 1967. Since then, the play was retitled (as Out Cry) for a brief Broadway run in 1973 and has cropped up both at London's Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 and Off Broadway in 2013, in a starry revival with Brad Dourif and Amanda Plummer that I actually caught at a sparsely attended Wednesday matinee performed to a bewildered scattering of New York playgoers.

Sam Yates's reappraisal is likely to confound spectators, as well, and represents continued risk-taking at this address following the Hampstead's expert reclamation of The Death of a Black Man — a play (and production) shamefully underrated in some quarters. The Two Character Play, by contrast, is admittedly never going to be to everyone's taste, and I'm not sure citing A Streetcar Named Desire in the marketing material does it any favours: the two works are theatrical polar opposites. But Yates's achievement is to match the evident European forbears to this text - Beckett and Pirandello, especially - with a European-flavoured production that exists in the self-referential, video-friendly tradition of Katie Mitchell and Ivo van Hove, to name but a few modern-day auteurs: theatre devotees will look on rapt even as more casual attendees are scratching their heads.

Running a good half hour longer than its latest New York airing, the play is presented here as a study in the very act of theatricality. Williams's purposefully knotted structure finds Zubin Varla and Kate O'Flynn playing brother and sister: touring actors who happen to be performing a work called The Two Character Play, in which they are cast as - you got it! - brother and sister in a play whose horrors bleed out from beyond the constraints of art into the characters' lives. Theatre people are used to "unexpected conditions" due, we're told, to "the perversities of the time," and the remark explains the disappearance from the siblings' midst of everyone (their manager, Fox, included) with whom they might have formed a company. The result finds them thrown back on one another as pieces of the set get hauled this way and that, self-projections jostling against the back wall with footage of the pair as children: innocents as yet unimpaired by experience.

"Nothing to be done," or so we hear in a second-act citation drawn directly from Beckett, by which point the mental disturbance of both characters has been ramped up by the appearance of a revolver that seems to tally with the double death featured ominously in the play-within-the-play. Snatches of music ("Love Me Tender," "Me and My Shadow") give way to a ferocious closing sequence that tilts the material in the direction of grand opera, Yates all the while clocking the multiple shifts in mood from absurdist comedy to something more ferocious.

One can't forget (and a programme essay makes the connection explicit) the ongoing wound for this dramatist posed by his emotionally blighted sister, Rose, and O'Flynn plays the scatty-seeming Clare with an easeful power no doubt informed by her West End run several years ago as Laura in The Glass Menagerie, opposite Cherry Jones. Varla, as much a shape-shifter of an actor in terms of his choices as the English theatre has, brings elements of Menagerie's questing Tom to the appeal to the imagination made by Felice: a theatrical multi-hyphenate all but imprisoned by his art.

The second act feels a bit attenuated, and you can imagine some responding with impatience to the careful layering of the cluttered physical and psychic landscape that unfolds across the full width and depth of Rosanna Vize's set, lit with crepuscular power by Lee Curran even as Dan Balfour's soundscape suggests a gathering foreboding and fear. But you have to hand this latest in the Hampstead's series of "Originals" for taking a lesser-known title and all but jolting it into renewed life. Art is a refuge until such time as it isn't, and The Two Character Play responds to that tension with a thorough understanding of what Williams recognised all too well to be the pain of life.

The Two Character Play at Hampstead Theatre until 28 August.

Photo credit: Kate O'Flynn and Zubin Varla (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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