The Two Character Play: Hampstead Theatre

The Two Character Play, Kate O’Flynn, Zubin Varla at Hampstead Theatre

The Two Character Play, Kate O’Flynn, Zubin Varla at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Marc Brenner

‘The very heart of my life’ is how Tennessee Williams described this haunting, dreamlike play.

An avowedly experimental work, Williams chose Hampstead Theatre for the 1967 premiere. Over fifty years later, director Sam Yates gives it a bold, absorbing revival.

Felice [Zubin Varla] and sister Clare [Kate O’Flynn] present themselves as actors on tour, seemingly abandoned by their colleagues. As the pair decide to stage a play from their repertoire, it becomes clear their meta-theatrics are born of the trauma of witnessing their parents’ violent deaths.

The squabbling siblings barely leave the house and endlessly rework memories of childhood: their nagging southern mother chastising their quack-mystic father; family trips to the Gulf coast; a hostile neighbour firing stones. Williams’ later-life was consumed with addictions, and he continued to orbit his beloved sister’s ever-deteriorating mental health.

The Two Character Play, Kate O’Flynn

The Two Character Play, Kate O’Flynn - Credit: Marc Brenner

This play shows the playwright striving to find a theatrical form that better reflects the spiral of his personal life - and it's not an easy ride. Yates finds inventive solutions to the challenges of staging it: microphones identify rare moments of public interaction – phoning Reverend Wiley for help, the painful exchanges with Mr Grossman who refuses to yield their parents’ life insurance; delicate black and white projections of Clare dancing as a little girl.

The messiness on stage – a flimsy domestic set, a tape deck, stage lights, underline the many layers. There’s a dizzying amount of theatrical game-playing: a witty second-half opener as the pair gaze out through a mocked up window frame; Clare’s action of hitting a C-sharp on the piano whenever one of them needs a scene change if memories become too painful; Clare dragging the doorframe with her when her agoraphobia mounts.

The Two Character Play

The Two Character Play L-R Kate O’Flynn, Zubin Varla - Credit: Marc Brenner

The performances have to be precise and both are exceptional: O’Flynn transforms from overbearing schoolmarm to romantic heroine to languorous southern belle, while hollow-eyed Varla stalks the stage like a clown experiencing an existential crisis.

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Whimsical Italian songs and tender bubble-blowing memories give way to a nightmarish sequence edited like a horror film. Clare’s earlier reference to themselves as ‘gentle people’ brings home the poignant personal tragedy behind the inspiration. 4/5 stars.