Not About Nightingales at the National - Cottesloe

It takes awhile to get a new play staged, but this is exceptional. Not About Nightingales has had to wait 60 years for its premiere, 15 years after the author s death. A young Tennessee Williams wrote the play in 1938, along with three other early works, to win a New York theatre group competition and a $100 prize. It has lain untouched ever since.

Based on a real Depression-era prison uprising in which four inmates were murdered, Not About Nightingales relates a horrific story and there is nothing in the text or Trevor Nunn s staging of it to soften the edges.

Boss Whalen (Corin Redgrave) rules his prison with an iron, pilfering hand. His skimming of the commissary budget makes for an unsatisfactory diet for the inmates. Strongman Butch O Fallon (James Black) leads Hall C goes on hunger strike in protest, invoking Whalen s anger. In a final attempt to break them, Whalen throws the strikers into Klondike, a hothouse where the cells are lined with radiators and the barometer only goes up.

Meanwhile, love is blossoming in the most unfertile place, the Warden s office - between the Boss new secretary Eva (Sherri Parker Lee) and his unwilling stoolpigeon Jim (Finbar Lynch). Jim is torn between his desire to blow the whistle and the prospect of parole and a new life with Eva. For her part, Eva just wants to keep her job; there is a Depression on, after all.

Richard Hoover s stark black and white set (even the American flag is awash in shades of grey), combined with Chris Parry s spooky lighting, conjure a film-noir claustrophobia. The shadows and searchlights, the bars and bunkbeds, the alarms and whistles and clanging of cell doors create a perfect cage for the audience s mounting tension. No escape. Certainly not from Klondike, the setting for what must be one of the most disturbing scenes ever staged. The audience watches open-mouthed and helpless as steam rises and the characters writhe around until they are literally roasted alive.

Redgrave s gravel-voiced portrayal of Whalen is chilling. Though he is beaten down in the end, his power is largely unmatched on the stage. There are, however, some very poignant smaller performances from the inmates - Black and Jude Akuwudike s Queenie in particular. Parker Lee and Lynch also manage to capture the painful unfolding of their love although they are hindered by some of Williams more awkward exchanges about cages and walls and poetry.

Overall, this is a remarkable and long overdue debut but, unsurprisingly, it does not possess the same accomplishment of Williams later masterpieces. A little more subtlety, a little more respite and a little less steam would have been welcome.

Terri Paddock, March 1998