Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Art / Music / Theatre

The Tennessee torpor: ITCH Productions’ Vieux Carré

by Dion Kagan , 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 knowWilliams 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 formedprotagonists 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.

 




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

9864007066_4a196b364d_z

Tim Robertson

Fear, loathing, and the erosion of civil liberties

The hysteria currently being concocted by Australia’s political leaders is a smokescreen for the more serious threat facing everyone – an attack of the very freedoms and values our nation has been built on. Read more »

308982705_be9f94455b_b

Marika Sosnowski

Back inside: Life on the Syrian-Turkish border

In Turkey, less than 50 kilometres from the border, Syrians have chosen their favourite cafes, have opened Aleppine sweet shops and set up stores in the old city. Read more »

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 »

lorelei

Lou Heinrich

Oversharing is caring: the rise of twenty-something memoir

The middle-aged love to decry the self-obsession of Generation Y. But is it so wrong for young people to process their lived experience by writing a memoir? Read more »

6277209256_934f20da10_z

Veronica Sullivan

What cannot be counted: reflections on the 2013 Stella Count

Today, the Stella Prize released the results of the 2013 Stella Count, which calculates the gender breakdown of authors reviewed in Australian newspapers. This year, as in previous years, the Count shows that Australian literary pages review female writers significantly less than they do male writers. But there are other insidious patterns … Read more »

5562248-3x4-700x933

Carody Culver

Man out of time: Nick Earls and his analogue people

Some readers persist in the belief that the sort of light-hearted, character-driven comedy produced by authors like Nick Earls is intrinsically less worthy than serious literary fiction, but it’s as much a challenge to make your audience laugh as it is to make them gasp at the elegance of your syntax or the gravitas of your ideas. Read more »

Clara and Doctor

Julia Tulloh

Doctor Who’s gender dynamics: a mid-season evaluation

In some ways, Peter Capaldi was a problematic choice for the newest regeneration of Doctor Who. How on earth were the producers going to pull off a successful friendship between a middle-aged man and a twenty-something woman, without it seeming at best patriarchal and at worst creepy? Read more »

blue-ombr-speckle-liner

Julia Tulloh

From the outside in: the beauty vlogger phenomenon

A current cohort of beauty bloggers are helping to break down distinctions between internal and external expressions of self in ways that allow them to generate new ideas of beauty on their own terms, rather than according to society’s expectations of what women (or men) should look like. Read more »

The Tunnel TV review

Julia Tulloh

The Tunnel vs The Bridge: The ethics of TV remakes

A body is found in the Eurotunnel, neatly laid across the border between France and England. When police attempt to move the body, it splits in two with the top half in France and lower half in England. Read more »

theskeletontwins1

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Suicide, Laughter and The Skeleton Twins

Even the best parents can inflict some form of lifelong damage upon their children. But when parents are outright mad, bad or dangerous – or in the case of the funny, bittersweet comic drama The Skeleton Twins, so depressed they commit suicide – the damage can feel impossible to bear, even decades down the track. Read more »

stepup5poster

Anthony Morris

Let’s Dance: unapologetic repetition and Step Up: All In

A franchise of movies based entirely around good-looking people performing unlikely and oddly aggressive dance moves wouldn’t seem to require heavy continuity – or any continuity at all – but Step Up: All In is surprisingly effective. Read more »

lead_large

Rochelle Siemienowicz

On Boyhood, parenting and the passing of time

Since its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, film critics have been falling over themselves to lavish love upon Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Read more »

6289302147_38e8035680_z

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Jacqui Lambie and the limits of Remix Culture

The combination of Google Image Search, Photoshop, and Facebook is a powerful one, providing web users with the ability to seek out swaths of copyrighted visual material, rip and manipulate these pictures so the original source is obscured, then share the freshly “remixed” images to a broad audience with no real fear of legal action. Read more »

Streisand_Estate

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Don’t Look: The emergence of Streisand criticism

In the wake of the recent nude celebrity photo leak, I noticed something strange about the ways different publications skewed their coverage. Tabloid-style publications tended to be honest about their motives. The behaviour of left-leaning broadsheet-style outlets, however, was more complex. Read more »

owl1

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Speaking with pixels

On the Facebook Newsfeed, it’s now possible to click a tiny smiley face inside almost any textbox to bring up a series of thumbnail images: an alligator bawling into a tissue, say, or a whistling fox dropping a turd, or a green owl vomiting rainbows. Read more »

tumblr_inline_n9e5g8afMe1rvc0fr

Danielle Binks

Beyond ableism and ignorance: disability and fiction

Youth literature has the ability to shape our attitudes to subcultures, and been proven to create empathy by reducing prejudice. So, if the genre has such potential for inclusivity, why are so many of these characters white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class? Read more »

Inky Awards

Danielle Binks

By teens, for teens: the Inky Awards

The Centre for Youth Literature’s Inky Awards are amongst the most important book awards in Australian literature. Read more »

9780987507013

Danielle Binks

Review: The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew

This is a coming out story but one that desperately needed to be told on two counts – one because it’s an Australian YA coming-out story, and two because it’s a coming-out story about a young man questioning his homosexuality alongside his Jewish faith. Read more »

free-u2-album-on-itunes

Chad Parkhill

The Perpetual Undeath of Rock

 ‘Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die.’ Depending on your own tastes and cognitive biases, Neil Young’s famous lyric will now seem more prophetic than ever before – or profoundly misguided. Last week saw the release of U2’s Songs of Innocence in what Apple … Read more »

arthur-russel-beckman

Chad Parkhill

Calling out of context: The perennial appeal of Arthur Russell

When Arthur Russell died in 1992 at the age of forty, he did so in relative obscurity, having released four commercially unsuccessful albums and granted a single print interview: not exactly a promising oeuvre on which to build a legacy. Read more »

Jabberwocky1

Chad Parkhill

The carnival is over

Jabberwocky, scheduled to take place last weekend, was the kind of festival that wasn’t supposed to fail. Read more »

please-like-me

Stephanie Van Schilt

Mental illness and Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me

While the jury is still out on the success of Please Like Me’s efforts to address ideas around mental health, the discussions both its seasons have provoked and continue to encourage are incredibly important. That, I definitely like. Read more »

DP

Stephanie Van Schilt

Idle hands and Devil’s Playground: Going to the movies to watch TV

I recently went to the movies to watch TV. I bid a reluctant farewell to the comforts of my couch and heater and ventured into the frosty evening in search of Devil’s Playground. Read more »

2014-07-03-theleftovers

Stephanie Van Schilt

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. It’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing enough to stick with for the long haul. Read more »