As it is so rarely seen, this early play by Tennessee Williams feels like a major discovery. Williams began it in 1945 and endlessly revised it. Now a young director, Rebecca Frecknall, has given it a complete makeover. Eschewing realism, she adopts the expressionist tactics favoured by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove and palpably builds the production around Patsy Ferran, who confirms her status as one of the most exciting actors on the British stage.
Frecknall, designer Tom Scutt and Angus MacRae, credited with composition, join forces to give the action an unusual setting: a circular pit of sandy earth ringed by nine pianos that the ensemble periodically play to create atmosphere. The text tells us we are in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, between the turn of the 20th century and 1916. But here the focus is on the primal nature of a conflict between spirit and flesh.
Alma, who constantly tells us her name means “soul” in Spanish, is a parson’s daughter and singing teacher whose undeclared love for a neighbouring doctor, John Buchanan, has driven her into a state of neurosis. If Alma represents the soul, then John, both professionally and socially, stands for the body. But after a melodramatic shooting, Williams shows their roles ironically reversed.
The stock argument against the play is that it is overly schematic: Kenneth Tynan argued“the characters are too slight to sustain the consuming emotions which are bestowed on them”. Williams also loads the play with visual symbolism, with an anatomical chart and an angelic statue underlining the tension between body and soul.
Frecknall, however, jettisons poetic realism to give us a dramatic ritual and a study in unfulfilled longing: one in which Alma’s mental turbulence is expressed through overturned chairs and jangled, nerve-racking chords on the pianos. Even if the production tends to favour Alma over the earthily sensual John, it deftly captures Williams’s underrated comic gift: in particular, his hilarious portrait of the snobbery of a small-town literary circle where an aspiring poet yearns to read a verse-drama that looks as if it weighs a ton.
It is Ferran who is the absolute centre of this production. She is first seen at a microphone stand expressing her youthful preoccupation with the wayward John. What makes her so magnetic is that she balances Alma’s spirituality, with her talk of gothic cathedrals reaching up to the skies, with a visible hunger for love. There’s an unforgettable, Chekhovian moment when John, in the process of medically examining Alma, takes her pulse, which she mistakes for a gesture of affection. It’s all in Ferran’s expressive eyes, which convey Alma’s contradictory mix of hope and despair and what she calls “the affliction of love”.
Matthew Needham plays John intelligently, as a man alive to Alma’s spiritual vibrancy but who craves more immediate gratification. The test of Needham’s performance, however, is that you believe in his character’s ultimate redemption. Anjana Vasan, representing four varieties of female sensuality, Nancy Crane as both Alma’s deranged mother and a local busybody, and Forbes Masson, doubling as Alma’ and John’s fathers, provide exemplary support. Frecknall’s production, which at the start looked fashionably tricksy, by the end had me totally in its grip. It restores Williams’s wrongly neglected play to a central place in the canon.
- At Almeida theatre, London, until 7 April. Box office: 020-7359 4404.