Tennessee Williams' The Two-Character Play (written between 1967 and 1975) is a darkly comic tragedy, which departs in form, if not in the beauty of its language, from his earlier and better known plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams himself said of this later play that it was his best since Cat and his most beautiful play since Streetcar. He also described is as more personal than either.
The characters are a brother and sister, Felice and Claire, whose world is unravelling around them. The theatre troupe with whom they've been travelling have deserted – unpaid and certain that Felice and Claire are insane. Without stage-hands, lighting and sound effects, the two are determined to put on a performance for their audience (real or imaginary is debateable). All they can do is present The Two-Character Play, a play about their lives. But their lives have been so traumatic that they sometimes forget their audience, leave the script behind, and re-live episodes from their past. There are memories of childhood, angry sibling exchanges and, when the memories become too painful, they put themselves back into the relative security of the play.
The present is equally threatening. They are in desperate need of food but are terrified of leaving the security of their home; an irony as one of their greatest fears is of confinement. All they have is their love for each other and their determination to avoid instutionalisation, to stay together no matter what. Again, when this world becomes unbearable, they turn back to the play within the play because this, at least, they can control, they can even edit.
The challenges for director and actors are enormous, and are emphasised when the production is a small scale, independent one. How do you distinguish between the three layers of 'reality', the shifts backwards and forwards in time, in a way that allows the audience to engage with, and be sympathetic to, these eccentric characters? Winterfall Theatre's production, directed by Catherine Hill and performed by Dennis Coard (Felice) and Michele Williams (Clare) succeeds amazingly well. Even my thirty-something friend, who admits to having the attention span of a nano second, was totally engrossed from beginning to end.
We care about these characters. We engage with their journey, coming to understand their multiple and conflicting fears – of confinement, of separation, of the outside world, of their past – and eventually even to celebrate their love for each other, their determination and their resiliance in a world that seems to be pitted against them.
The black box theatre is made to work extremely well; we are aware of an inside and an outside. Our first sight is the confusion of a stage littered with props of all shapes and sizes, including a large, reddish pig, reminiscent of a centrepiece for a banquet. In silence and referring to notes, Felice enters and slowly begins to clear the acting area of any unwanted props, moving them into the wings, which remain visible to the audience. He carefully paces out distances, places an old case on the ground, draws around it with chalk and then writes 'window' in the box he's created. The silence combined with Felice's slow and measured movements is truly comic. And there are many other moments when one laughs out loud, as when Clair and Felice face the audience and announce a 5 minute, no a 10 minute, no a 20 minute intermission! But the overwhelming feeling is of slow and inevitable decline. The tragedy of their situation slowly but surely comes to obliterate everything but their love for each other.
TheTwo-Character Play is beautifully and skillfully written. It is a many layered piece that draws you in, takes you on a journey and then leaves you thinking hard about the issues it raises. And you are left with the memory of the beauty of Williams' poetic language brought alive by skillfull direction and powerful performances. It makes you want to investigate more of William's work.
Winterfall Theatre presents
The Two-Character Play
by Tennesee Williams
Directed by Catherine Hill
Venue: Theatre Husk | 161a Heidelberg Rd, Northcote
Dates: 12 August – 7 September, 2014
Times: 7:30pm Thu-Sat, 4.00pm Sun
Tickets: $30.00 – $26.00