Returning to the stage at Hampstead Theatre over 50 years after its original showing, The Two Character Play is essential viewing this summer. Director Sam Yates has brought Tennessee Williams’ unconventional and eccentric play back to life with his own exceptional creative flair; audiences can expect to be enchanted by two and a half hours of intrigue, comedic genius and insanity.
The plot revolves around meta theatricality, which is essentially a play inside of a play. The Two Character Play follows a pair of siblings, who are actors. The siblings have to perform a play that only needs two characters as their company deserted them due to their insanity.
The Two Character Play sustains interest with the unravelling of the characters’ minds. Actors Kate O’Flynn (as Clare) and Zubin Varla (as Felice) create a paradox as it becomes difficult at points to know if it is them on stage or the characters they play or the characters from the play-within-a-play. The audience are left to piece together the madness. Moreover, the comedic exchanges between O’Flynn and Varla provided the audience with scuffles of laughter despite the contrast to the seriousness of the plot. Both actors also break the fourth wall, which further removes the boundary between the audience and the actors. The audience soon learn that the characters Clare and Felice are complex and are more than just company actors.
All design elements of The Two Character Play come together to accentuate the madness of the plot. Rosanna Vize’s set utilises all of the stage, and curates a sense of chaos when coupled with the use of lighting and filmed media—which provides a different perspective for the audience. The left side of the stage is transformed into the siblings’ technical space, where lighting and music are manually changed with switches and the changing of cassettes. The audience are thus alerted whenever the siblings move towards this area as a change in lighting or music indicates a change in mood. This space in turn becomes an explicit point of tension as one of the siblings has to walk away from the other to alter the set. Moreover, there are multiple points of exit for the characters with the backstage door being used, but also a trapdoor. This perpetuates the audience’s confusion in being unaware of the whereabouts of the characters whilst the play is still ongoing.
The play also offers a greater sense of intimacy with a projection from a live camera on the main wall. The camera is often picked up by one of the siblings, allowing us to see their expressions of fear or sadness in greater detail. Videos are thus a key element of The Two Character Play, adding a different dimension. Alongside the live camera, there are also projected videos of the characters’ past selves which suggest that a part of their childhood still lingers on with their present selves. These videos brings a new layer to the production in providing context to the characters. As a whole, the production compliments the unfamiliarity of the plot as the characters attempt to navigate the stage, losing the ability to distinguish their reality and the play they attempt to perform.
Tennessee Williams’ dark drama The Two Character Play was described by himself as his “most beautiful play since A Streetcar Named Desire”. The play’s non-linear and atypical plot is truly enchanting.
The play is running at Hampstead Theatre in West London from 17 July to 28 August 2021. Discounted concession tickets are available for students and under 30s at £10.
Words by Lucy Vo
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Image Credit: © Marc Brenner