KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Art / Music / Theatre

The Tennessee torpor: ITCH Productions’ Vieux Carré

by Imogen , February 12, 2013Leave a comment

ITCH's Vieux Carré

Imagine the worst share house you have ever set foot in, multiply its misery by ten and you will have something approximating the milieu of Tennessee Williams’ 1977 play Vieux Carré. If you’ve never heard of it, that may be because it’s from his critically panned late phase, consisting of works that were badly reviewed and are rarely revived. Indeed, until this year’s production by ITCH (International Theatre of the Condition of Humans) in Melbourne’s Midsumma festival, Vieux Carré had never been performed on an Australian stage.

Now more commonly called ‘The French Quarter’, the Vieux Carré is one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans. With histories of Anglo-American, Francophone Creole, Irish and Italian migrations, the Vieux Carré of the early twentieth century had a mix of cultures that, combined with its dirt cheap rents, made the place attractive to artists. Like the intellectual renaissance of Greenwich Village, memories of the precinct are overlaid with a romance of urban bohemia in which the ménage à trois of poverty, transgression and art becomes the logic underwriting everyday life.

This is where a young Tennessee Williams lived and this is where the play is set: a louche boarding house peopled with addicts, hustlers and queers. Nightingale (Stephen Whittaker), an ageing homosexual artist, lives alone in an attic bedroom, in denial that he is dying from consumption. The fallen New York society gal, Jane (Samantha Murray), has a blood disease that she self-medicates with whisky and sex with an aggressive, drink- and drug-addled hustler called Tye McCool (Des Fleming). A supporting cast of bedraggled miserables includes a pair of elderly ladies reduced to dumpster diving and Gray Gardens-style eccentricity. All are presided over by the formidable landlady Mrs. Wire (Kelly Nash), also known as ‘the Witch’. Life in the house is recalled by a young artist known as ‘the Writer’ (aka. Tennessee Williams), who comes of age sexually and artistically under the tutelage of this motley crew.

 

ITCH's Vieux Carré

 

This is the fine romance of abject poverty. It’s an endlessly renewable subject for artists, whether or not they’ve experienced it firsthand, as we know Williams did. Often the libertine boarding house narrative is sexually knowing and dry, as in Cabaret. Sometimes it risks a sort of poverty voyeurism, as in the execrable AIDS musical RENT. ITCH’s iteration of Vieux Carré was gritty and melancholy, but somewhat drained of the play’s erotic potential.

For example, when Nightingale hears the Writer crying, he enters the young man’s room and offers him conversation and intimacy gifts at once generous and opportunistic. This early scene is written with sympathy, comedy, grief and disgust, rapidly crossing registers that make it challenging for any actor or director. This should be the moment in which the trinity of desperation, loneliness and lust that motivates these characters is clearly established. In ITCH’s production, it is just sad.

So much of the pleasure of Williams’ early work is the sublimation of queer desire into women characters and heterosexual plots. Ironically, this production, in which queerness is now un-closeted, was un-simmering.

Somewhere in the world, one of Williams’ acknowledged masterpieces is being performed right now. Sydney’s Belvoir theatre has almost sold out their 2013 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and if the comments of Director Simon Stone are anything to go by, it will be sexy.

But Vieux Carré is a far more difficult play. Its tonal shifts are so fluid as to be almost impossible for a traditional staging. Williams’ lyric métier is instantly familiar, but the script is erratic. The characters emerge like a crumbling portfolio of quick sketches rather than fully formed protagonists assembling as part of a coherent narrative. In its first Broadway incarnation it closed after five performances. A more recent interpretation by the Wooster Group was radically re-contextualized with actors in black jock straps and prosthetic penises. Perhaps that is the answer: a more oblique approach to this exploration of outsiderdom.

In many discussions of the play, the word ‘crepuscular’ appears, evoking an artistic twilight: the dream-like, decadent character of an artist’s late work. The word also refers to mammals like bats, ferrets and rats, which are fitting, figuratively, as likenesses for the play’s animalistic characters.

Vieux Carré is an ambitious project, and ITCH productions made a valiant effort. Alexandra Hiller’s set design is an impressively sprawling boarding house crammed into the basement of 45 Downstairs, cleverly foregrounding the unceasing lack of privacy forced upon these lost souls of New Orleans. Director Alice Bishop paid careful attention to the nuances of history and place: the French Quarter, which she visited for research into the play, is evoked in music, costumes and the range of Creole, Southern and other American accents. But for me, Williams’ Vieux Carré is less a place and more a state of mind. It has the shifting tones and schizoid emotions of a dream state. And this production didn’t quite take me there.

 

Dion Kagan is a Killings columnist and an academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender and sexuality studies in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University.

 




Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

The Fictional Woman

Carody Culver

Learning from semi-charmed lives

When famous public figures take a step further and use their personal experience as a literary vehicle for exploring wider social issues, I can happily check my celebrity memoir prejudice at the bookshop door. Read more »

My Salinger Year

Carody Culver

Searching for Mr Salinger

Joanna Rakoff’s book is ‘the truth, told as best [she] could’, of her year as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies, a job for which many an Arts graduate would sell a kidney. Read more »

editing

Carody Culver

Giving voice to a silent profession

The role editors play in the process of ushering new writing into the world is both vitally important and strangely overlooked. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

Douglass books

Julia Tulloh

High fantasy writers who aren’t George RR Martin, and who are also women

‘Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed.’ So wrote Australian high fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, a decade and a half ago. Replace Tolkien with George RR Martin, and one might say the same principle applies today. Read more »

Conchita Wurst

Julia Tulloh

Why Eurovision 2014 was a bit disappointing

No one watches Eurovision to discover surprise new talent, or even to hear good singing. I watch it for the kitschy, pop-tastic visual onslaught which rarely fails to assault viewers. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

Gabrielle

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Beyond tics, limps and prosthetics

Think of a disability – mental or physical – and there’s sure to be a film that features it. What about giving big roles to actors who actually live with the disability they’re depicting? Now that would be authentic. Read more »

Under the Skin

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Size Matters

Bigger isn’t always better, but some films will open themselves up to you and pour themselves out in new ways when you see them on a cinema screen. Read more »

5881861191_90de8b5bc9

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Making trolls eat their words

If we’re not conscious of a troll’s desired response, we risk inadvertently encouraging further trolling by allowing ourselves to be played. Read more »

filter

Reality vs. Instagram

It’s been over three years since Instagram launched, and we’re still not sure whether processing a photograph might be considered akin to doctoring a memory. Read more »

2014 Budget

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Could we crowdfund the dole?

Following the announcement of the 2014 budget, the director of a leading arts organisation posed a question on Facebook: ‘What recourse do the people have to stop these changes? What are next steps? Would be curious to know of any other effective measures to get the message across… apart from complaining on Twitter.’ Read more »

tumblr_inline_n6wz16ohb91r8e10g

Danielle Binks

YA is the New Black

Apparently those of us who do read and enjoy youth literature should be ‘embarrassed’. At least that’s what Ruth Graham said in her recent clickbait article for Slate, ‘Against YA’. Read more »

A Little Pretty Pocket Book

Danielle Binks

Who run the book world? GIRLS!

‘It’s no wonder boys aren’t reading – the children’s book market is run by women.’ So claimed the headline of an April article in The Times.

*Cue Liz Lemon eye-roll* Read more »

The Fault in Our Stars

Danielle Binks

The Fault in the Cult of John Green

I like John Green as much as the next YA-aficionado. I’ve snot-cried through his books, and chuckled over his YouTube videos. But now it’s time to talk about the media-led oversaturation of John Green, and the insulting way he’s been heralded as the saviour of young adult fiction. Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

The Knife

Chad Parkhill

Never Settled: The Knife’s Shaken-Up Versions

Making live electronic music engaging is a difficult task, and The Knife’s Silent Shout tour shows a band committed to breaking the visual cliché of performers standing still behind banks of electronic equipment. Read more »

Tori Amos

Chad Parkhill

Loving (and hating) Tori Amos

Tori Amos is hardly to blame for the existence of her fans’ expectations, nor for their disappointment when her work does not live up to them – but that doesn’t prevent that disappointment from feeling intensely personal. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »

deadwood-03-1024

Zora Sanders

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Zora Sanders defends Highbrow TV

I’m going to be honest with you. I feel a little guilty being gifted highbrow TV as a subject to defend. Highbrow TV doesn’t need a defender! It’s a battle that has been won! Highbrow TV is downright fucking awesome and every single person reading this already knows it. Read more »