Review: The Two Character Play (Hampstead Theatre)

The Two Character Play, revived at Hampstead Theatre as part of its ‘Originals’ series, is a curious piece with two strong performances but a feeling of confusion from the start.

This is one of Tennessee Williams‘s later plays: although it does have some echoes of the mental instability displayed in works like A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Camino Real it feels rather more personal.

Williams was at the time of its writing in deep depression, and in the tale of a brother and sister half in reality, half in fantasy, he may have been influenced by the fate of his own sibling, Rose, who slipped into insanity.

This play is the only one of Williams’s celebrated oeuvre to have premiered outside of the United States. In 1967, the original production at Hampstead starred Peter Wyngarde and Mary Ure. It was further revised under the title of Out Cry for its Chicago premiere, before reverting to its original title.

Zubin Varla in The Two Character Play

At Hampstead, siblings Felice and Clare are played by Zubin Varla and Kate O’Flynn. They are actors, and they are alone, their company and crew vanished, their audience very possibly imaginary. This is the theatre of absurdist type, sitting clearly alongside the experimentations of Beckett and Pinter.

In Sam Yates‘s production, video technology comes to the fore – cameras are on stage filming the actors both in their off-screen and on-screen personas, there are snatches of home movies, in the interval there is even film of a model box of the set within the set being constructed.

This is a very meta production, aware of of its theatricality. The actors Felice and Clare, brother and sister, become Felice and Clare, brother and sister, characters in The Two Character Play, which is the title of the play staged within the play.

Improvisation and asides to the audience (which audience is unclear – the one the pair are performing to in their theatre, or us, watching them play their parts in ours), and the constant moving of set pieces (the set for the play within the play is unfinished) highlights the fact that this is a performance which we are watching slowly implode.

There are beautifully constructed moments: the pair – in character – blow soap bubbles out of the window of their house; the actors sit on a cinema love-seat and croon together, lighting their cigarettes off each other.

Kate O'Flynn in The Two Character Play

In both sets of characters, a sort of horror story develops. Acting pair Felice and Clare don’t have anywhere to go other than the empty theatre, and constantly bicker and disagree, unable to function without each other, calling for the other when being alone is too unbearable.

Character pair Felice and Clare are both broken souls, unable to cross the threshold of the house which holds unimaginable tragedy. She is brittle, and looks as if a breath of wind would shatter her into pieces; he is tense, taut and precise. Were they like this as children? We never know, although recurring watching eyes may tell.

There is a sense of mystery throughout both plays, which blend together until we are not quite sure which pair we are watching. Of course there are three pairs – Zubin and Kate the actors as Felice and Clare the actors as Felice and Clare the characters.

There is also music, which acts as an voice when no real speech can come. Music from old cassettes changed on-stage. And with an ending that isn’t really an ending, this remains a fascinating curio.

The Two Character Play is at Hampstead Theatre until 28 August – book here.

Images by Marc Brenner

LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to review The Two Character Play.