Entertainment & Arts

New plays celebrate Tennessee Williams centenary

Caitlin Thorburn as Nance and Sam Marks as Nijinsky in A Cavalier For Milady (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Image caption A Cavalier for Milady features Caitlin Thorburn as Nance and Sam Marks as Nijinsky (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Amid the flurry of revivals to mark 100 years since the birth of playwright Terence Rattigan, the centenary of American Tennessee Williams is also being celebrated with some key events.

Strange as it may sound, the world premiere of a Tennessee Williams play took place last week in a small theatre above a pub in north London.

A Cavalier For Milady, one of Williams' final works, made its stage debut nearly 30 years after the playwright's death.

"This play, in my opinion, is equivalent to Cinderella and Absolutely Fabulous," says Gene David Kirk, who directed Cavalier at Kilburn's The Cock Tavern.

"It's extreme, it's camp, it's over-the-top - it's this web of genius and tragedy."

The one-act play as completed two years before William's death, at the age of 71, in 1983.

The playwright's most celebrated works - such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - had been written decades earlier. The 1960s and 70s had seen him battling critical failure, as well as personal struggles with drug and alcohol abuse.

Cavalier, set in the parlour of a Manhattan mansion, is considered to be Williams' final portrait of his mother, sister and himself.

Image caption American playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) pictured in London in 1965

It sees a troubled young woman, Nance (Caitlin Thorburn), dressed like a little girl, heavily medicated and isolated from society.

While her domineering mother (Janet Prince) spends her evenings out with male escorts, Nance plays out her sexual fantasies with an apparition of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (Sam Marks).

"There is so much in there for any Tennessee Williams fan," Kirk tells the BBC, shortly after the play's first public performance. "You see every member of his family mixed up - it's a mosh-pit of his family."

As Michael Billington says in his Guardian review: "The play feels more like a personal revenge-drama than an exploration of the human predicament. But, even if it makes for thin drama, Gene David Kirk's production does everything possible to give it life."

Cavalier is the second Williams premiere at the Cock Tavern, the first being an unpublished play in March, I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays.

The premieres came about via Tom Erhardt - agent for the Williams estate - who had been impressed by the Tavern's Edward Bond season last year.

Artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher describes Cavalier as "one of the most challenging Tennessee Williams plays to stage".

For one thing it requires the Nijinsky character to perform a ballet routine on the Tavern's tiny stage, just inches from those in the front row.

"There's something visceral about sitting in somebody's living room," adds Kirk. "The great western stages are fantastic but you're always separate. Here, you are sat in that Manhattan apartment for that evening."

'Impossible play'

Why has the play remained on the shelf for so long?

Says Kirk: "The Nijinsky role was written with Rudolf Nureyev in mind, but it just never happened.

"I think it was the impossible play, because directors would say 'who the hell am I going to get to play Nureyev playing Nijinsky in this bizarre caricatured world?'

Image caption The character of Nance is based partly on Williams' sister Rose

"It's not an easy play to navigate, it comes over as camp and bit pantomime - but that's the style I think it requires. Tom [Erhardt] kept it on the shelf for many years and this just seemed the right moment to get it off and give it a go."

Kirk recently directed Williams' The Two-Character Play at London's Jermyn Street Theatre. The production transfers off-Broadway in the US in September.

How have attitudes changed to Williams in the years since his death?

"Our palette changes," concludes Kirk. "We cannot take the attitude of the 60s, 70s and 80s. We are now in 2011 so we need to revisit all these works and give them to the audience today not based on criticism or rejection from a generation ago."

Another rarely-seen Tennessee Williams play, Kingdom of Earth, opens later in April at The Print Room in Bayswater.

The play, first seen on Broadway in 1968, was last performed in London in 1984. It takes place in a decrepit farm house on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, a few hours before the valley is due to be flooded.

A Cavalier for Milady is at the Cock Tavern until 23 April. Kingdom of Earth is at The Print Room from 29 April - 28 May.

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