Celebrating the unexpected beauty of the plays of Tennessee Williams
Southern Belles unites two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. Presented together as part of the King’s Head Theatre’s Queer Season in London, these are tales of love, loneliness and longing.
Never staged in the playwright’s lifetime due to its openly gay characters, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens charts the heartbreaking encounter between an extraordinary queen and a troubled sailor in 1950’s New Orleans.
In Something Unspoken, tensions between a wealthy spinster and her loyal secretary boil over in a confrontation that exposes their complex, unacknowledged yearning for each other.
Ahead of opening night, I caught up with director Jamie Armitage for a behind-the-scenes look at the production.
What was your inspiration to bringing these two plays together as a double bill?
The un-romantic truth is that I was sitting on a very overcrowded train when the idea came to me. I already knew that I was going to direct a one-week run of And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens. As soon as I finished reading Something Unspoken – on the overcrowded train – I felt like I’d found the most natural partner play. When the King’s Head Theatre asked me to bring Tell Sad Stories back, I knew I wanted to present both these pieces as a double-bill of rare Tennessee Williams works.
What are some of the challenges in bringing the plays of Tennessee Williams to life on the stage?
I directed And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens last summer and fell in love with the directorial task of mining the depths of this character’s inner lives. The main challenge is figuring out what is going on below the words. Characters in Tennessee Williams’ plays often say one thing but think or feel something profoundly different. Trying to highlight these subtextual feelings to create a beautiful feeling of tension is a challenge but an exciting and fulfilling one to navigate.
What was your casting process?
The casting process with these plays was a fascinating balancing act, as each focuses on a central relationship – I had to not only think who was best for each role but how that would affect the dynamic of the pair. I am so delighted that we have found a cast as brilliant as we have who will make these works sing.
Both of these stories reflect experiences from our queer past, will they still resonate with today’s audiences?
The phenomenal response to And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens last year made me feel so happy that the audiences felt such a deep connection to these works which are sixty years old. Each audience member appeared to take something different from the show, but what was exciting was how the show seemed to have some form of personal resonance with every person I spoke to. My hope is that the double-bill will be able to have a similarly powerful emotional impact on its audiences.
Does presenting these plays together somehow amplify the themes that Williams was exploring?
I certainly hope so! My starting point for the entire project was focusing on the shared theme of unspoken love and using this idea of what is below the surface as the guide for my thinking about all aspects of the show, especially the design. I’m also certain that through the rehearsal process that more parallels between the work will begin to appear and these will deepen an audience’s emotional engagement with the double-bill.
What do you hope that people feel when they’re watching the Southern Belles double-bill?
There is something really special about these plays – for an audience, they will be simultaneously recognisable as works of Tennessee Williams but also unexpectedly novel too. There are themes which appear in other of his works – such as unutterable love, the impact of past trauma, and loneliness, – yet they’re explored in unusual ways.
With And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens the characters feel unique as one is an openly gay man who wears drag, while the other is a sailor who tries to talk tough but below the bluff, he is nervous and uncertain about his sexuality. Then in Something Unspoken, there are two more recognisable Tennessee Williams characters but in an unexpected situation – it’s almost like a love-story between Alma from Summer and Smoke, and Amanda from The Glass Menagerie.
I always try to create work which can spark powerful, emotional responses in an audience. My hope is that audiences develop a deep sense of care for these characters and are surprised by the unexpected beauty to be found in these lesser known works by Tennessee Williams.