There is more to be said for Confessional than first appears and the production by Jack Silver, with a very talented cast and creative team, gives it back a rigour and shape that were not so apparent in the original.
This ninety-minute play was first performed in 1970 and has had few revivals since, partly because it was extended to become a larger work, Small Craft Warnings. It belongs to what Tennessee Williams himself referred to as his ‘Stoned Age’, the decade or so after The Night of the Iguana, in which the writer’s productivity continued apace, but where by and large the dramaturgy declined and the same themes, tropes and characters came around again on a carousel that seemed to retain energy but little fresh imagination.
However, there is more to be said for this play than first appears, and the present production by Jack Silver, with a very talented cast and creative team, gives it back a rigour and shape that were not so apparent in the original. It was originally seen in Edinburgh in 2015.
As the title suggests the play sets up a series of encounters and confrontations between eight characters in a seedy seaside bar, and over the course of the evening each role has a confessional moment, a long monologue in which their innermost concerns and anguish are laid bare. In this sense it is rather like a chamber opera in which there are a variety of arias and ensemble moments interspersed.
The major coup in this production is to take the original text more or less as it is and transfer the action from the Atlantic seaboard in the 1950s to Southend-on-Sea in the here and now. Florida gives way to Essex. This is not as bizarre as appears at first sight. We are dealing with a group of trailer-park regulars washing up of an evening at the same dingy watering hole and then in their cups the truth spills out. That is a universal or at least readily transferable dramatic format, and given our general exposure to soap operas, any implausibility about this collection of oddities appearing in the same space is readily suspended.
Rather in the same way as in the late Arthur Miller’s Danger:Memory!, this is a play where the strengths of the writer’s professionalism are still very much present but alongside elements of routine and formulaic writing that would not have survived self-scrutiny in the playwright’s glory years. There are examples of exceptionally beautiful poetic monologues that blur the lines of reality and surrealism. There is the evocation of the outsider as truth teller and catalyst to the vices of the community, here embodied in the figure of travelling beautician Leona (Lizzie Stanton). There are some tautly constructed, fierce arguments of considerable Southern Gothic power and venom. However, there are also some characters that are lazily underdeveloped and other areas where the writing is clearly dated and slack.
One example is in the handling of homosexuality. Although this play was novel at the time in offering Williams’ first essay at an openly gay character, these elements are conditioned by 1950s codes that no longer have much purchase on reality. Of course homophobia is very much with us, but the discourses of public abuse and gay self-hatred take different forms now from those that Williams himself inhabited. It is one of those cases where the writer’s self-conscious desire to be radical has ironically been turned reactionary by later history.
The creative team have relocated the audience within the performance space in a deliberately immersive strategy that is commendable in its carefully considered detail. The smaller space at Southwark Playhouse becomes Monk’s Place, a down-at-heel pub on the Essex coast: faded embossed scarlet wallpaper, a scatter of bland, local framed prints hanging askew, a carpet with geological layers of detritus trodden into it, a few tatty, officious health & notices, and chunky, clunky pub furniture. Above the bar presides a stuffed sailfish casting a leery eye over proceedings below.
The meticulous detail with which Justin Williams has created this set commands respect, and the idea of making the audience punters in the midst of the fray with cast members mingling there from start to finish does create a spectacular immediacy, albeit at the occasional expense of sightlines. The subdued lighting scheme by Jack Weir also helps to intensify the general dinginess and gloom, and Katy Clark’s costumes have the right blend of carelessly worn grimy working clothes and Chavvy-chic.
It is the hallmark of the Tramp company to leave elements of the production open to improvisation, so while the text is fixed, movement and the degree of extreme emoting vary from night to night. On press night Stanton was relatively restrained in the lead role, but it is still a towering performance as she gets gradually more drunk, maudlin and abusive as the evening progresses, with little islands of empathy with some of the characters along the way. It is a peach of a part for a bravura actor, and she grasps every moment of the action and sucks out all the juice.
The other characters gravitate warily around her, all equally damaged or defeated by life, but unlike her, unwilling to move on and make a new start. The characters to whom she is closest are those who also experience the most abuse and are the most unable to look after themselves. There is poor mentally ill Violet, (Simone Somers-Yeates), beautifully played here in a wan downward spiral of barely comprehending despair, with copious tears only ever one put-down away. Also in the firing line is Bill (Gavin Brocker) the latest in Williams’ long line of lazy, vaguely thuggish, deplorable boyfriends, whose only recommendation is his sexual prowess. It is quite a thankless role to play, more reactive than energetic, but Brocker takes his moments well.
More in the background are the two downtrodden men who run Monk’s place, Monk himself (Raymond Bethley), a put-upon well-meaning type with a dark past and very incorrect views; and the chef Steve (Rob Ostlere), sullen, devoid of aspiration or hope and little better in his treatment of women than swaggering Bill. These characterisations are finely calibrated by the actors, and serve as a reminder of just how good Williams always was in creating real people out of fragmented, stunted characters damaged by life who are neither simplistically good nor bad.
Also in this category is a drunken doctor (Abi McLoughlin), an excellent study in alcoholic self-degradation and immiseration. The subject of mockery and disdain by a jealous Leona, the doctor is another example of a type we have seen before in Williams: a professional who allows her personal self-hatred to leach into her work with catastrophic results for all concerned. This role is potentially one of the most interesting in the play, but sadly it is only in the closing pages that she comes into her own. Least successful are the gay characters, mis-allied Quentin (Tim Harker) and Bobby (Jack Archer), whose parts seem more programmatic than truly imagined, despite the best efforts of the actors to lift the lines from the page.
This is not a neglected masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it shows how deft Williams could still be even when slowed down by self-punishment and desire for oblivion. The play by itself would not garner four stars, but the consistently thoughtful and imaginative playing and production values elevate the evening to that level of achievement.