Almeida Theatre, London – until 7 April 2018
Is love a Gothic Cathedral, a yearning for a permanent, holy, respectful connection to the best in our nature? Or is it lust and fun, animal attraction, a reckless erotic adventure?
Well, at its best it is both: but when Alma the minister’s daughter interprets her liking for John the medical student as part of her yearning for eternity, he meets it with impatient brutal words, makes her look hard at the ugliness of an anatomical diagram. She decries his gambling, even his pose – “Don’t sit like that, you look so indolent and worthless”. He shrugs and turns to Roza the casino owner’s daughter who, in Alma’s view, is part of the distressing, threatening deeper south which alarms and fascinates anyone striving to be a Southern Lady – “all the Latinos dream in the sun and indulge their senses…”
And the sadness of their story, played out in a sultry Mississippi summer when a disastrous gunshot is never far away, is that each converts the other, but too late.
Four years ago I saw Rebecca Frecknell’s production of this rarely seen, elegiac Tennessee Williams play in the Southwark Playhouse tunnel: I called it a jewel. It is fine to see that her directorial passion for the piece endured, for this is the same director’s grander production.
In the smart Almeida it is set with remarkable expressionist symbolism, Tom Scutt’s set a shallow ellipse of nine pianos on, behind, around and upon which assorted characters not necessarily in the scene are placed; sometimes playing an obbligato to keep the mood or giving a few notes to represent the coming of the cool Gulf Wind or a doorbell. Sometimes they light up. Composition is by Angus MacRae, musical direction by Mark Dickman.
And it is clever, but for me sometimes a little to the detriment of the play’s beauty. For Tennessee Williams’ world of yearning, damaged, misbehaving, disappointed, painfully lovable characters, hanging on to hope and life by their fingernails, is expressed as always in lyrical language and emotional images so heartbreakingly poetic that you resent missing even a single word due to murmured moments of extreme naturalism; or indeed having an agonised significant pause accompanied by a mere theatrical bit of cleverness. Williams doesn’t need that: the heart beats too strong for any of the modish tropes of modern productions to matter.
But oh, it is a lovely piece, and the performances at its heart honest and finely drawn. Patsy Ferran is beyond superb as Alma the preacher’s daughter, pious and ladylike, prone to hyperventilating, and changing before our eyes, with painful growth, to the moment when she says too late that wrenching line “The girl who said no doesn’t exist, She died last summer” and comes ironically to understand what courtship is after years of condemning the kind of woman who known for “making the acquaintance of travelling salesmen”.
Matthew Needham is equally strong, equally heartbreaking in the end. Their connection, despite his (very Tennessee-Williams) tendency to bully and mock her beliefs, is intense. With economical simplicity other parts are doubled or more, Anjana Vasan particularly impressive (with a fierce torch-song) as Rosa the Latina, the dark sensuous angel, and milder as Nellie. Nothing is wasted, no irony or brief sad laugh unmarked. At times the selfconscious staging irritated me, a little. But the beauty shone through, and honour to Frecknall for championing this gorgeous, gentle play.