This was a most pleasant surprise. Well, more than pleasant - joyous. I stumbled across this staged reading as well as an additional one on the 15th, when online buying a ticket earleir in the summer to my A Streetcar Named Desire return visit. Both Tennessee Williams' A House Not Meant To Stand and The Fugitive Kind were being mounted, each for one night only, at the Donmar as rehearsed readings. I know The Fugitive Kind - the precursor to Orpheus Descending which was made into the film starring Marlon Brando - The Fugitive Kind. I don't know A House Not Meant To Stand, and with the added bonus of being only £10, it was an opportunity that I didnt want to miss.
What I was also looking forward to was being in an audience with mainly Tennessee Williams fans. As there was no addtional information made available (Cast, Director) one had to be interested in the playwright to spend an evening on something that many won't be familiar with. I avoided reading anything about it online as I wanted to be surprised and not come in with any preconceptions. Now that I'm home I looked up a few things. Most significant is it was that last play Tennessee Williams wrote. Described as a 'gothic comedy' this tragic comedy comes up with the goods. But more on that in a moment.
As this was a reading there was no programme with additional information about the play but we did get a cast list. Other than the privelege of seeing a rarely performed and not well known Teneesee Williams play, this was the first idication that the evening would be special. The cast, and for me, the director Jamie Lloyd. I think he is the best director around, He really gets inside the work and gets very fine tuned performances from his casts. Here are his credits: Piaf (Donmar and Vaudeville Theatre), Three Days of Rain (Apollo Theatre), The Pride (Royal Court - Olivier award for Oustanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre), Harold Pinter's The Lover and The Collection (Comedy Theatre) and The Caretaker (Sheffield Crucible and Tricylce Theatre). All of which I've seen. All excellent.
Now the cast: Alun Armstong (Sweeney Todd at the National - Olivier award, Bleak House, Little Dorrit -both TV and Get Carter - film); Obi Abili (The Brothers Size - Young Vic, Angels in America - Lyric Hammersmith, Fabulation - Tricycle); Felicity Jones (The Chalk Garden - Donmar, That Face - Royal Court, Brideshead Revisited - film); Anton Lesser (A Doll's House - Donmar, The Vertical Hour, The Seagull - both Royal Court, Little Dorrit - TV); Tom Riley (The Verical Hour - Royal Court, Lost in Austen - TV); Alison Steadman (Abigail's Party - stage and TV, Gavin & Stacey - TV, Confetti, Topsy Turvy - both TV and Shirley Valentine - film); Tim Steed (Much Ado About Nothing - Regen's Park, The Pride - Royal Court) and Una Stubbs (La Cage Aux Folles - Mernier Chocolate Factory, Pillars of the Community - National Theatre, Eastenders - TV). These are by no means exhaustive credits but hopefully you will recognise some of these by the credits I chose.
Now the play. Here's quick rundown of plot from Wikipedia ( editing out bits that should remain a surprise should you ever see it) - ' The play is set during the Christmas holiday in a deteriorating Mississippi home of Bella and Cornelius McCorkle, who have just buried thier eldest son, a gay man Cornelius banished from the home years earlier. During a raging storm, heavy drinker Cornelius, who once had political aspirations, tries to get Bella, who suffer from mild dementia, to disclose where she concealed the considerable amount of money she inherited from her grandfather, who accumulated his wealth by making and selling moonshine. Whe she refuses to cooperate, Cornelius threatens to have her institutionalised, just as he did with thier daughter Joanie. Coming to her rescue is thier negligent youngest son Charlie who has returned home with is girlfriend in tow.'
It sounds like a pretty dire situation, not ripe for comedy, but add in a zany busybody neighbour who has recently succumbed to plastic surgery, her down home macho-ist husband along with wild revelations about the girlfriend and you have a great and very funny comedy. What's interesting is although it's the 70's and sex, pills, plastic surgery and foul language run rife - it is still very much Tennessee Williams. I would venture to say it may be the funniest Tennessee Williams I've seen or read. However funny it might be, as is Tennessee's way, there is alway a sad, forlorn undercurrent. In this play it's Bella's refusal to let go of the past. As she feels she is approaching death, and helped along by her dimentia, she longs more and more for the life she once had, when all three children were present and everything was good.
Keep in mind that this was a reading. There were only chairs on the stripped bare Streecar set and all actors were on book and one of the actors - Obi Abili - read all the stage directions. This element was a great success. Anyone who has ever read a Tennessee Williams play will know that his stage directions tend to be very detialed and he ususally uses the same wonderful use of language in these directions that he uses in his plays. Having them read laoud not only gave the audience a greater sense of the action, it was also entertaining to listen to.
Hats off to the actors. To be able to get such fully realised performances, complete with believable Southern accents in a reading is a testament to their skills. I am sure this is also due to jamie Lloyds direction. i would say that it must be a very difficult thing to get stage a reading, wth little rehearsal , no set and on book, in way that is also interesting to look at, and keeps the audience engaged and entertained. At over two hours with one interval, this reading flew by.
Of all the performances there were three that shone. Both Felicity Jones and Una Stubbs were absolutely hysterically funny and spot on with their characterisations, and the great Alison Steadman gave great humanity and pathos to the bewildered Bella. A close second would be Alun Armstong as Cornelius and Anton Lesser as the macho Emmerson. The only real issue was that although the stage directions were great to listen to, alot of the actors diction was garbled and I felt I was often missing elements.
As with all 'pop out of nowhere' productions I have to wonder why they did the reading. Jamie Lloyd was there, the first time I've seen him in person, as were from what I can tell, Donmar staff. To me it points to the possibility of a full production. That would be fantastic. I would love that and be the first in the queue for tickets. There are a few scenes, ones dealing with the more dramatic parts, that in a fully realised production would be heartbreaking. Elements that can only be hinted at in a reading.
However much I want a full production I have two concerns. One - Jamie Lloyd would have to direct it as it's very obvious that he 'gets' Tennessee Williams, and two - please, oh please let it not be at the Donmar. This play needs a big playing space and the Donmar isn't set up for this, at least without dodgy sightlines. It was great for this reading, but a full production, no.
A House Not Meant To Stand could have just been a nice added gift to the audience. It ties in nicely with Streetcar and there are alot of elements and themes that resonate with current times. So if that's the reason - then I'm extremely appreciative - thanks Donmar! But, I'm still secretly hoping for more.
One last thought. If Tennessee were alive and still writing today, I'm sure he would be writing about how the more things chage, the more they stay the same. Actually, unbeknownst to him, he already has.