With The Glass Menagerie continuing in the West End and The Rose Tattoo about to open at the National, London’s informal Tennessee Williams festival takes an intriguing diversion into unknown territory with this short trilogy of “lost” playlets in the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios.
The Williams canon of great work is by no means decided – how surprising a discovery was Summer and Smoke last year? – and the most substantial item on this bill – And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, despite its arch reference to Shakespeare’s Richard II - is an extraordinary sketch, dating from the late 1950s. Suppressed in his lifetime by the playwright himself, it is about a transvestite in the French Quarter of New Orleans trying to seduce a “straight” pick-up by getting him drunk.
The transvestite, Candy, hires herself out as Karl’s prostitute for the night having mixed him the lethal “violet” (about a gallon each of vodka and Pernod). Some months later, the couple are domiciled, but Karl beats up his host(ess) and absconds with the money in her silver teapot. Candy is comforted by her neighbours, a pair of nosy queens from Alabama.
The piece is highly evocative of an undercover life, its heartbreak and compromises – Candy has recently lost her “sponsor” of seventeen years, a married man who left his wife for him – but is especially moving in its plea for tolerance and liberated assertion that without “queens” this country would be absolutely barbaric.
Edward Hughes and Matt Ryan as Candy and Karl give brave and touching and performances in a piece that is a little bit more than a collector’s item in Anna Ledwich’s sensitive production. A sure touch is also apparent in the two shorter plays, both dating from around 1939, when Williams was finding his way from college into professional writing with a burst of short stories, poems and sketches.
In Mr Paradise, also set in the French Quarter, a pushy young college girl (bright as a button Jennifer Higham) has tracked down a washed up, disappointed writer (a shambling, “seen-it-all” Ted van Griethuysen) having discovered a book of his poetry propping up an antique chair. This pungent encounter between old failure and new hope is a remarkable subject for so young a writer, and ends with the girl’s promise to restore Mr Paradise’s reputation after his death.
Summer at the Lake is in some ways a tragic preview of The Glass Menagerie, with a restless young boy, Donald Fenway (luminous David Hartley), escaping the neurotic attentions of his abandoned mother (an attractive, highly wrought Diana Kent) on the lake where time is suspended and dreams realised. He goes for a swim. He doesn’t come back.
This adolescent pessimism has been turned into professional determination by the time Williams finds his true voice a few years later. But how scary, and interesting, that he went through this morbid phase first of all; and that the playwright would achieve freedom only in his art and the valour of his wonderful characters.