THEATRE: Discovering lost Tennessee

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"The miracle has happened. I'm on the train for Iowa City." Now, I'm sorry if you're of good mid-Western stock, but on a list of America's most scintillating places, Iowa is damn near bottom. Heck, Meredith Wilson even set his small-town, big-hit musical The Music Man there. Miles and miles of rolling plains, it's Lincolnshire without the nightlife. Still, for 26-year-old Tennessee (then plain Tom) Williams, on the night of 22 September 1937, it spelt the thrill of escape. On the final leg of his journey from St Louis, he wrote "I feel such a prodigious excitement - in spite of a double sedative - that I must communicate my feelings to someone or blow up."

Fortunately, he channelled his explosive energy into writing. Buried in the University of Iowa playwrighting class, within weeks he was planning "the study of an ordinary middle-class family in a city apartment, supposed to show the tragedy of bourgeois stagnation." Originally entitled The Gentleman Caller, it made his name when it opened on Broadway in 1944 as The Glass Menagerie.

In the last few years, nearly everything he wrote has been revived. Back in 1988 the National staged Howard Davies's now fabled production of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof - "as powerful, poetic and spellbinding a version of this piece as you are likely to see" - starring Lindsay Duncan and the late Ian Charleson giving what one critic described as "two performances of driven majesty and great poise".

Richard Eyre has long championed Williams, staging The Night of the Iguana and, a couple of years ago, Sweet Bird of Youth, fuelled by an incandescent Claire Higgins which virtually erased memories of the movie in which Paul Newman was simply too good-looking and, fatally, too intelligent, for a man whose chances are waning.

Sam Mendes took his oddly safe production of The Glass Menagerie from the Donmar to the West End and Peter Hall came a cropper with heat-free A Streetcar Named Desire with a miscast Toby Stephens (sexually too self- conscious and, worse, wrong class) and Jessica Lange, who played the end of the play from the moment she walked on. Steven Pimlott even introduced the RSC to Williams with a rare production of Camino Real, which transfers to the Young Vic this week.

Even Williams's more obscure late plays have been disinterred, some of which are, I'm afraid, justly neglected, having been written after too much pills and liquor had done their damage.

No-one, however, has produced his unseen early stuff before, but thanks to the resilience of Vanessa Redgrave (above, who dug it up from amongst his papers) and Trevor Nunn, who is staging it at the National, we now have the extraordinary opportunity to discover Not About Nightingales, which predates Menagerie by a full five years.

This is no early stab at a dreamy, torrid Southern melodrama. The play was sparked off by a newspaper report of a prison riot in which four convicts were brutally murdered. A dramatic protest play, it has never been performed. A rare chance to boast of having seen a Tennessee Williams world premiere.

'Not About Nightingales' is in preview and opens at the National (0171- 928 2252) on 5 Mar. 'Camino Real' is in rep at the Young Vic (0171-928 6363) from today