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
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
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
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
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
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