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.
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.