Even as a busted flush in the late 1970s, Tennessee Williams still wrote like an angel, and Vieux Carré , which was premiered here at the Nottingham Playhouse and then the Piccadilly (not the St James’, as the programme has it; that was its New York venue), with Karl Johnson as the unnamed writer, Jonathan Kent as a beautiful bisexual and Sylvia Miles as the bizarre landlady, is a frank and fascinating companion piece to The Glass Menagerie.
It shows the writer (Tom Ross-Williams) passing through a New Orleans rooming house in the old French quarter, finding his voice, and his sexuality, in the rag-bag company of the chaotic landlady Mrs Wire (Nancy Crane), a lascivious old street painter (David Whitworth) and the electrified pairing of a disenchanted illustrator (Samantha Coughlan) and her flagrant gigolo (Paul Standell).
The casting is slightly askew in Robert Chevara’s production, but the close-up and personal intensity of its presentation is rather delightfully shocking, with scenes of desperate sexual intimacy enacted on a cramped setting of three large beds, and the poor old painter coughing up blood all over the front row.
It’s as though Williams was revisiting the sources and scenes for his great plays with a devil-may-care promiscuity of language and imagery. Back in 1978, I thought Vieux Carré marked a return to vintage form, but this revival proves I was wrong. The character of the writer’s salvation, a free-living coast-bound musician (Jack McMillan, is a cypher, and Mrs Wire’s descent into pseudo-maternal madness is plain embarrassing.
But there’s always a good argument for seeing the worst of great playwrights, and this scenario is at least a valuable document of incipient gay liberation, and an explanation of the artistic impulse, in Williams’s case, as a route of escape.
And the detail of the play has a riveting authenticity, not only in the character of the writer himself – played with a somewhat over-emphatic, pretty boy glassy eyed-ness (and the playwright’s own cataract problem) by Ross-Williams – but also in the precise divagations of the other characters.
The brilliantly observed mini-tragedy of the two old biddies (Anna Kirke and Hildegard Neil), for instance, who scavenge garbage cans for their next meal, and return with paper bags for the cooler, as if they were overfed bon-viveurs, says everything you need to know about the hollow triumph and false hope of everyone in a Williams play, and that comes through even in one as sketchy and un-focussed as this.