It’s Tennessee Williams and somewhere between the delusion and negligees, opiates and bourbon, are characters haunted by what they are supposed to be, or worse still, what they once were and no longer are.
Staged at the illustrious Langham Hotel near Oxford Circus, three unconnected sketches entitled The Hotel Plays, each set in different rooms and floors of the hotel, provide a cringingly intimate setting for Williams to cannibalize scenes from his unhappy life, proved all the more riveting by the perverse proximity of exceptional acting – particularly the women – going on all about you in the room as though you weren’t there at all. At times it is hard to discern what that feeling most closely resembles – being the spectator of a fistfight, children spying on drunken parents or couch surfing whilst glazing over Big Brother – the production is sharp and intelligent and at times shamefully thrilling, like good gossip.
The audience is packed into narrow benches and sometimes stood against the wall in anticipation of the performance, which is to all effects and purposes, already in action when we cram into the room. There is haunting Dixie jazz floating in from an ancient sounding radio in the room’s toilet, which is already occupied with the sound of water running and a woman humming; or more shockingly, a character slumped in defeat, looking beyond us entirely. The spectator here is an intruder and whilst the décor is Depression era glam – clad in erotic silks and pink lighting – cunning tricks like backlighting behind closed curtains ensure the room mimics the setting, be that the break of dawn or the dark of midnight.
In this packed room, the actors begin their confrontation with us audience members all about them, in some cases standing shoulder to shoulder with the action. The first sketch concerns the duplicitous end of an eight year-long extra-marital affair; the second, most brilliantly, hammers at the politics of the Vietnam war as a disagreeable honeymooning couple on furlough dissolve due to either the man’s post-traumatic stress disorder, or his violent blackout drinking – it’s never entirely sure which is the cause, and Williams gives you both options to consider. One thing, however is certain: intimacy here breeds nothing more than ammunition to be used immediately, or stored away later for an opportune moment.
But what is most intriguing for me is how well Williams’ later work – ravaged by the philistines of his day, all wanting a return to the bankable malaise of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire – missed the boat entirely with how good his later stuff truly was. So much for the critics. Beyond genre in some sense, it even goes beyond reality TV, much of which is scripted anyways, and in some sense ushers us through some time warp; not so much historical fiction, or a play, but like being one of Don Draper’s children in Mad Men, but in real life, and holding up a smartphone to the action rather than seeing it on AMC.
In the best scenario, we are ushered out of the room by a chirpy actor with a Southern drawl, in hotel uniform, leading the audience out of the room as the actors are still engaged in the scene. Haunted by what we’ve just witnessed, the guide drawls on about inanities such as the hallway décor as we are pushed out of the room.
Even after all the therapy gurus and chat shows, my first instinct is still relief at being able to sweep what I’ve just witnessed under the rug, whilst sharing smug and conspiratorial glances with the other audience members. Williams hits it just right by somehow capturing what used to be private and is now the only thing left to see.