There is something bracing about this revival of Tennessee Williams’s 1967 play, which had its world premiere at the Hampstead theatre that year. Williams called it “my most beautiful play since Streetcar” but unlike that better-known work, this slice of southern gothic is overtly complex, experimental and sometimes confounding.
Its perpetually shifting narrative ground features a play within a play, performed by a brother and sister who are actors on tour with a company that has left them behind – just like their dead parents. Clare (Kate O’Flynn) and Felice (Zubin Varla) decide the show must go on and stage a “two character play”, slipping in and out of their performance to leave us wondering which part is the play and which their offstage reality or fantasy life. This brings deliberate confusion, with clever theatricality and some terrific song and dance numbers.
The sibling intimacy is reminiscent of The Glass Menagerie, except more fractious and unsettling. Inspired by Williams’s sister Rose, who spent a large part of her life in a psychiatric institution and to whom he was intensely close, it incorporates themes of mental illness and forced confinement. Sam Yates’s direction and the creepy shadows in Lee Curran’s lighting design accentuate the disturbance felt by the siblings. Clare is too scared to go outside, and her agoraphobia bears resonances of lockdown; however much the siblings seek escape from the inside, they fear what lies outside and so stay stewing.
It is about a brother and sister losing their grip on reality, but it is also about performance: how life and fiction can elide in the mind of the actor or writer, and how they can become trapped between both. Rosanna Vize’s stage design never lets us forget there are two plays in operation, leaving all dramatic artifice exposed: the light rigging lowered at the start, the sound system at one side, cameras switched on to magnify the actors’ faces on a back screen alongside the props and set strewn across the stage.
O’Flynn and Varla are superb as the siblings, building an antagonistic intimacy and falling into strops or meltdowns. They bring an unexpected comedy too, which becomes a highlight: when their play begins, they switch from English accents to a hammy southern twang, and there is great wit to the improvised nature of the show they put on. But this comedy runs the risk of blunting the murderous edge to their relationship and we do not believe they hate each other, though Felice declares it.
The play drives towards a certain ending and then withholds it, looping back on itself, and revolving in its own locked circuit of which we, the audience, are not a part. There is the uncomfortable sense by the end that these two characters are stranded inside their confined worlds, and we are stranded outside, doomed never to make contact.
At Hampstead theatre, London, until 28 August.