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Tennessee Williams originally intended to title his memoirs with a stanza from an Anne Sexton poem. “Flee, Flee This Sad Hotel” was misquoted from “Flee on a Donkey”; Williams thought he’d snagged it from Rimbaud. They were finally published in 1975 as Memoirs, an uncompromising plumbing of decades of drug use, taboo sexuality, instutionalisation, grief, and hotel-hopping. Williams had apparently decided his life was “as much a merry tavern as a sad hotel”. But the five one-act Williams plays staged this month in London belong more to Sexton’s sad hotel—even her asylum—than to a Chaucerian inn or Williams’s later-life circuit of lavish hotels. Set in hotels and boarding houses, these five plays—The Magic Tower and The Strangest Kind of Romance at Pentameters Theatre and Green Eyes, The Pink Bedroom, and Sunburst by Defibrillator at The Langham Hotel—tear into the sadness, violence and queerness of these transitory homes and the strangers they bring together.
These are all lesser Williams plays: two (The Magic Tower and The Pink Bedroom) have never before been performed in the UK. But they’re crowded with recognizable tropes, what you could even call stock Tennessee Williams characters. There’s a moth-eaten Southern belle, playing courtesy, charms and Shakespeare to a hallucinated audience; a lily-livered, closeted Tom Wingfield prototype, seeking affection and escape in a pet and a cat-kicking Kowalski brute. There are sultry, rotten women and futile men, arguing in soggy accents about hopeless futures in sticky Southern heat. There are moments of hard-bitten profoundness and miserable humor and even, in Green Eyes, a savage political charge. But there are also O. Henryan last-minute turns, strained lyricism, clunky fantasies and perverse stage directions that demand herding a cat. Deft performances smoothed over most of the clumsiness, or just found humour in warped American vowels. In the case of The Hotel Plays, the gimmicky fun of site-specific theatre and traipsing through a luxury hotel was half of the fun.
The starchy Langham requires a suspension of disbelief and a sardine-packing of bodies to be credible as a sweltering, seedy bayou inn, but when the lights were low and the busted romances and schemes played out in your lap, you could feel the furious heat. In The Pink Bedroom, that heat is from the last sparks of a fizzling affair, as a businessman and his mistress fall out in their plush love nest. Helen George’s mistress is fierce and mannered, and Gyuri Sarossy’s travelling businessman scummy and self-serving in his regret, but their verbal sparring and Bourbon-chasing are perhaps too routine from Williams.
Better is Green Eyes, where the prickling immediacy of the tight staging is best used. As a GI on leave and his unfaithful new wife, Gethin Anthony and Aisling Loftus overturn the honeymoon suite of a New Orleans hotel in a savage, sexually-charged power struggle. Anthony and Loftus are drawling, furious and unafraid of the physicality of the scene; they nearly fall in your lap.
After the serrated edges of Green Eyes, Sunburst is a badly plotted trifle. Two swindlers hold a grand dame of the stage hostage in her hotel room, scheming to steal the huge diamond stuck on her swollen fingers. Carol MacReady’s Miss Sails is a hobbling, swooning, Shakespeare-quoting delight, Daniel Ings is grossly charming as a bellhop angling for her finger, but Jake Mann steals the scene, playing his slithering, drunken swindler with particularly rubber-faced panache. The story itself is frivolous and the tension melts quickly, but it’s a fun caper while it lasts.
The Hotel Plays had their sets ready built, but Pentameters Theatre didn’t have to stretch far to mime the Depression-era boarding house attic of its plays either: it’s there in the hodgepodge of chairs, the car boot sale jumble of artifacts stashed at the edges of the gallery. It’s a whole theatre tucked up fire hazard stairs above a pub; the peeling walls of the set were just garnish. The Magic Tower’s ex-vaudeville star Linda (Julia Taylor) makes it all disappear with a far-off gaze and heavy-handed illusions. Williams harps on her escapism too strongly—the Magic Castle of the title is her conjuring, a cloying fable of knights and Rapunzels that she spins out of her marriage to keep out the cold and the hunger—but ultimately, her artist husband is the more unrepentant fantasist of the two. When Linda finds an escape, in form of a hilarious, harmonized proposition from her former showbiz friends (Claire-Monique Martin and Damian Regan, perfectly camp), she snatches at it, and, in her greatest hocus-pocus yet, convinces herself leaving is for Jim’s own good.
As hapless as Jim is, the next unnamed resident of Pentameters’ lodging house is even more spineless and defeated. Likely closeted, he spurns his landlady’s advances by claiming he’s a ghost and takes comfort in the affection of a cat a previous occupant left behind. Francesca Wilde’s landlady is brassy and persistent, but the scene-stealer is Jeffry Kaplow’s as her doddering, drunken father-in-law. He wakes the house with tirades about labour exploitation and capitalist greed, and is the only one to speak truth to the renter.
Williams’s own wanderings ended in the plush Sunset Suite of the Hotel Elysée, but they’d started in flophouses and boarding rooms like this. He mythologized that time of his life relentlessly in his memoirs, styling himself a vagabond poet. He was never truly poor in the flophouses and inns along the Okie trail and in Mexico City (his mother wired money regularly), but he knew well the combustible strangeness of dingy hotels and boarding houses and the tenuous relationships acted out in their rooms. An early poem, written when Williams was still Tom and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, captures the misanthropic shallowness of hotel connections: lovers in a hotel bed bore each other with their life stories until “Well, one of you falls asleep/and the other one does likewise with a lighted cigarette in his mouth/and that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms”. No one’s life stories are dull here—they’re littered with murdered Vietnamese children, illustrious stage careers, rotten marriages, eight-year affairs in all-pink bedrooms, and spooled out in fabulous arguments. But sometime you’d wish they’d all catch fire in their hotel beds, just to be put out of their barb-throwing misery.