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Masterful work provides a memorable evening

Review by Paul Nelson

IT'S a rare chance these days to get to see a play by a master that has lain, as it were, gathering dust on a shelf, but such is what is in store for any Tennessee Williams fan with Something Cloudy, Something Clear, currently enjoying its British professional premiere.

The play is a retrospect, an incomplete remembrance of a summer some 40 years past, trivia recalled, major events trivialized.

As is usual with Williams, parts of his own past, his family's history, matters of levity and significance load the play with all the ammunition needed for, to say the least, an interesting evening in the theatre.

It is also a mixture of factual and fictional characters. No less a person than Tallulah Bankhead pays a cursory visit, and Frank Merlo, his long-time lover. The remaining characters are amalgams of the real people in his life, not so sufficiently disguised as to be unrecognizable to the student.

Events from his life are interwoven in the very fabric of the piece; his sister's lobotomy and insanity, his own addiction to the bottle and the pill.

Above all, is the sense that we are in the presence of a major poet, one loved by the American literati, and incomprehensively to Williams at least, ultimately shunned by it.

In order to tell his story Williams is at his most succinct. Using the device of partial glaucoma, his leading character has clear and cloudy vision, hence the dual meaning of the title. Some events and people are drawn in sharp focus, some with double vision, others more obscure.

The play emerged during 1981, the faulty recollection therefore being of 1940. In it, Williams does not hide his callowness, his drunkenness, his flippancies and his heart, he examines his failings almost dispassionately, though that is not to say the play is devoid of passion.

The overall impression is that Tennessee Williams was very badly let down, by Tennessee Williams.

The action of the play takes place in a remote ramshackle beach house built on sand dunes. Its isolation is significant.

At no point does this stop the worldly from seeking him out for personal gain.

Flamboyantly homosexual, Williams, or August as he has reinvented himself, seeks fame through writing.

Isolation brings with it the need for love, or at least remembrance of it, first from a childhood sweetheart, Hazel, and finally to the recognition that casual sexual relationships are, though unsatisfactory, essential and need to be recognized as being a useful part of development.

August is attracted to a Canadian dancer, Kip, who is on the run from the draft. He has an affinity with Clare, an appealing character dedicated to his welfare, their relationship being tantamount to a sibling relationship.

August eventually allows, if not forces, his sympathetic concern for the youth to turn into the sex act, an act that Clare ultimately sees as an abuse of her friend.

Death is close at hand, not only because Kip has a malignant tumour of the brain, but from rough trade in the form of a drunken merchant seaman, mutually dangerous and attractive.

The final poetic statement propounding the belief that life is all one time, not to be squandered or compartmentalized. Our dreams are as important as truth.

The play gets careful attention from its director, but I could have wished it were not played in the round, a theatrical form that has consistently irked me and one which I have never found added anything to a play, the reverse being almost invariably true.

The unsuitability of this form is most evident when Kip is stretching and exercising his limbs in a self-imposed discipline, almost a solo ballet class, which irritatingly takes up the front of the stage from where I was sitting.

I am not ashamed to admit that, like Aunt Edna, I could have wished it had happened at the back and we had glimpsed it through the French windows.

Possibly, others may find this acceptable. I put up with it mainly because the play, like finding a hitherto unknown Shakespearean text, provides a memorable event, one which both the cast and audience appreciated.

Something Cloudy, Something Clear by Tennessee Williams, Directed by Tamara Harvey, Designed by Soutra Gilmour, Lighting by Emma Chapman, Sound by Richard Lace, Choreography by Sian Williams. WITH: James Hillier (August), Bruce Godfree (Kip), Kate Sissons (Clare), Derek Hagen (Frank Merlo), Nikki Leigh Scott (Nurse/Hazel), Derek Hagen (A Merchant Seaman), Matthew Hendrickson (Maurice Fiddler), Susan Bovell (Celeste Fiddler), Nikki Leigh Scott (Caroline Wales), James Wallace (Bugsy Brodsky), Susan Bovell (Tallulah Bankhead). Presented by Bright Angel, Produced by Nina Alexandersen, at the Finborough Theatre, Finborough Road, London SW10. Tickets 020 7373 3842.

Picture shows James Hillier, Bruce Godfree and Juliet van Kampen

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