There's no mistaking the late-Thirties setting and seeping sense of the Depression in New Orleans in Roger Haines' atmospheric production of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré. Written late in his career, in 1978, and rarely produced, it is a fascinating semi-autobiographical patchwork of pre-echoes and reminiscences.
The narrator, called simply the Writer - supposedly Williams himself - reflects on his early years of poverty and self-discovery, drawing on bleak situations and the wry, heart-wrenching encounters he observed opaquely through his cataract-afflicted eyes. He presents a cast of misfits, thrown together in a decrepit rooming-house in the French Quarter's Vieux Carré district. Setting, situation and symbolism point to characters and events that surface in Williams' better-known plays: people's loneliness and suppressed sexuality. Writers are "shameless spies" whose suffering for subject-matter never leaves them.
In Haines' affectionate interpretation, waves of music and pools of light fade in and out as if heard and seen from a distance. Sarah Williamson's maze-like set of sketchy partitions and doorframes separated by invisible walls adds to the dark intimacy. A series of glimpses into private scenes, Vieux Carré is a sometimes frustratingly slow unravelling of these complex characters.
Frances Jeater's lively Mrs Wire, tended by her Nursie (Yvonne Brewster), is more than a match for her boarders. She bullies the old women reduced to scavenging, tears into the strip-joint barker with whom the proper Jane makes a last-gasp attempt at pleasure, and shows little sympathy for the dying Nightingale.
As this tubercular artist, Robert Demeger overdoes the coughing, perhaps to make up for his lapses into a cockney rather than New Orleans accent, but Mark Arends makes a sympathetic Writer, evoking Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. A strange cocktail, Vieux Carré has all the ingredients of a piece of chamber music, its elements remixed, its mood shifting rapidly in time, and its quiet cadences played hauntingly from memory.
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