Confessional, Tennessee Williams, Southwark Playhouse (2016)

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Tennessee Williams is a highly regional writer, as strongly associated with the American South and its social fabric as Faulkner. His work is also time-stamped. In general, it feels flexible only within the range of a couple of decades and these are still too fresh in living memory to acquire the vagueness with which a modern audience reads the historicity of Ibsen or Chekhov. This staging of Confessional, a play about a group of regulars interacting in a shabby bar on a night that seems both eventful and utterly typical, is fairly unique in its decision to shift the action to modern South End, in England. It gets a lot from that choice. The tensions, the homophobia, and the characters’ marginal lives all feel relevant in this altered context, and only a few lines (and the burden on the viewer to imagine the role of the play’s non-NHS doctor—perhaps treating migrants?) make the reading a bit difficult. It doesn’t feel like a Shakespeare play set in a 1970s garage, where the sliding juxtapositions have their own generative play. It works more literally than that, and draws the eye to how much of the world Williams wrote of survives today, especially in forgotten, down-at-heel spots.

The text itself has strong homophobic, homotragic elements. This is not the opinion of the play per se, but layers of these opinions play out therein, and Confessional could be distinctly uncomfortable for a queer viewer who doesn’t want to confront that in an immersive, realistic, contemporary setting. I do feel there should be some kind of trigger warning (perhaps some of the materials contained one: I didn’t see). There’s been a huge post-Brexit spike in hate crimes and hate speech, and for too many people the play’s events are a reiteration of the kind of hostility they regularly deal with.

For me, the homotragic elements struck more deeply than the homophobia expressed by perhaps the play’s most culpable idiot. Both the elder of the play’s two gay characters (It’s always gay men, isn’t it? I wonder I can see myself in the mirror, I’m so invisible.) and the battered heroine (who venerates the memory of a deceased gay brother) believe homosexual life, or at least a homosexual lifestyle (as defined by this play), to be relentlessly wearing and ultimately bleak. There’s a lot of more contemporary radical, optimistic thought about queer futurities, and in some ways it’s frustrating to be dragged back into this somewhat self-hating, dated narrative and position. But that is the position Williams was writing from, and it’d be both difficult and disingenuous to strip this element from a staging just because it now feels past its sell-by date and like a nuanced, self-imposed form of discrimination.

Williams often does deeply complex, flawed, compelling female characters who have a kind of awful, searing recognizability. For me the central figures here are ultimately a drifting, casual prostitute who lives above an arcade (for now—it is, she claims, a ‘temporary arrangement’) and has little memory of her own past or idea where she’s going and a similarly migratory beautician. But this beautician controls her trailer and her destiny. She’s mothering and hard, angry and clear-eyed, responsible and self-reliant. She’s brittle and unbreakable, enmeshed in her early sorrows and utterly unwilling to become permanently trapped in any new ones—willing and able to cut and run. Determined to do it. She’s the protagonist if anyone is, and she deserves the station. I think this actress might be the best member of a good cast, but it’s also hard to tell because it’s a very good role.

For all their intersectional concerns about class, queerness and femininity, Williams can have a blind spot about race. His plays often give us an imagined all white south, where if there are black people, they’re somewhere else—not at the center of our action, not even on its periphery. The creation of a white southern past (and this is an imaginary labor, the south such efforts envision is creatio ex nihilo) is an intellectual project that, after Williams’ time, became very important to ‘post-racial’ America. This mechanism allowed a historically inaccurate Nativism to be revived and refashioned in the US: you can see it in the imagined white trajectory of country music, stripped bare of the influences of zydeco et al. Some scholars of post-WWII Japan have done great work on the recent invention of certain Japanese ‘traditions’—the back-reading of rituals like sumo and constructed long histories of entirely peaceful urban living and paternalistic companies. This invention of the past was a vast cultural project, and when I first read about it as an undergrad I considered the unfashioning of memory involved unique and disturbing. Now, when I think about the imagined white Southern past and how thoroughly this time that never was and circumstances that never were have come to dominate American conservative and moderate political thought, I wonder how prevalent such mechanisms and formations actually are?

This staging generates its immediacy and establishes its change of setting by means of probably the most successful immersive layout I’ve ever seen. It’s set in a dingy working bar, and you literally walk in and sit somewhere. Any photo of this space would be falsely identified as an image of a real pub by someone who didn’t know better. My sister, who worked as an assistant stage manager on the production, doused the floor with old, stale beer so it’d reek and stick. Gross, but the right decision. Before the actual show began, audience members ordered drinks, used their phones and watched people they didn’t quite know were actors chat amongst themselves and with punters. This pre-show was largely successful, if somewhat jarring in contrast with what we later learned about these characters’ relationships: the beautician and the doctor paled around before the play started in a way that felt incompatible with the beautician’s low opinion of the doctor.

The issue here was that the pre-show action was improvised, and thus not necessarily considered and consistent with the relationships depicted in the text. In fact all of the play’s blocking was improvised. This added to the show’s rawness and immediacy, but the choice has some issues. It demands a LOT of the actors, consistently. The fact that the show worked very well was, I think, largely down to the strength of the cast rather than the structure afforded them by underlying staging decisions, because perhaps the key staging decision is to outsource a lot of the labor of the play. Of course this means the resulting piece of theatre varies even more than is usual with live theatre from night to night, and is uniquely dependent on the cast being well-chosen, cohesive and in fine form. (These variations also make the play more difficult to critically and academically interact with, but this is incidental.) The choice could also result in an always-loaded play feeling or getting out of hand, unsafe for actors or audience members—the material lends itself to physical violence, and the staging to audience involvement and unpredictable responses.

Perhaps my chief artistic issue with the live improv approach is that it led to circular, repetitious blocking that actively harmed character arcs at some points. The beautician starts making out with her crummy live in boyfriend after she’s dumped him (or at least she did in this matinee) when I don’t think it’s in keeping with her feelings at that point. People mill around in circles. In short, a certain stage business effect can overtake character and arc. At the same time the milling feels perhaps too reminiscent of spending time in a bar like this, of how inebriated people bumble through circular conversations in life. The script might be said to lend itself to that circularity. Yet a thing’s being realistic doesn’t necessarily make it stageworthy. I think ultimately the script falls on the right side of that line and this technical choice on the wrong side. That is, of course, a balance that might shift on a great night versus a bad night, and perhaps it’s inorganic and unfair to suggest that a show’s bad nights should still be fairly strong, the cast and the audience cushioned against failure. But I would opt for purposive, narrative staging that generates effect over a phenomena-based approach: that’s always my preference, and it’s where I’d go with this text.

None of this should suggest I wasn’t engaged with and moved by this play: it’s very good theatre, well-executed. I don’t quite know why I don’t love Williams when I ought to (we share so many interests—it’s like the unlikeliness of my disquiet with Michael Chabon). I would recommend catching any reprisal, and following the cast, especially that brilliant, hard-working assistant stage manager Meghan Schwartzkopf who is looking for gigs in the greater London area please contact for more information—


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