The Gate, the Actor and the Designer – Thoughts on _Streetcar Named Desire_

A couple of months ago, I posted a note asking why we don’t see more non-Irish plays here in Ireland. The argument I made was that the staging of new and classic international works has an impact on the development of new Irish practice: that the production of great Irish plays helps to develop writers, directors, designers, performers and audiences in important ways.

There is a lot of evidence of this kind of causal relationship between international work and Irish practice in the history of modern Irish drama. We know, for example, that by producing European and American plays the Dublin Drama league helped to inspire a lot of the work that emerged in Ireland from the late 1920s onwards – not just in playwriting but also in direction and design. There’s a case to be made that without the DDL you wouldn’t have had the Gate Theatre, and its focus on European ideas about performance and design.

Likewise, the Pike in the 1950s premiered work by Behan and Beckett but also made a point of producing international work, including plays by Tennessee Williams, whose play The Rose Tattoo famously led to that theatre being raided by the police in 1957.

And both Druid and Rough Magic started out by producing quite a lot of non-Irish work in the 1970s and ‘80s respectively, before developing to a point where they could focus more on Irish writing. Garry Hynes has spoken interestingly about how her company produced plays by writers like Dario Fo before it “grew up” and started doing new Irish work, for example.

Throughout the history of modern Irish drama and theatre, many people have expressed the fear that by engaging with international work we might damage Irish drama – that it might be diluted or overpowered. But the reverse is true: Irish practice has been strongest at periods when there has been a good level of awareness of writers and ideas from outside the country.

So for these and other reasons I was glad to have the opportunity to see a very strong production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Gate earlier this week.

The production has been getting very positive reviews, with most commentators praising the quality of the acting, especially by Lia Williams as Blanche. It thus drove home to me the extent to which the Gate has contributed so much to Irish practice in terms of acting. In fact, the theatre recently organised a World Actors Forum – the idea being that if Davos can host economists, Dublin might justifiably do something similar for acting.

I can understand why the Gate might want to stake a claim to world-leading expertise in acting, not only for Dublin but also for itself.

The theatre has in general been omitted from (or played a very small role in) the standard histories of Irish drama – mainly due to the fact that, even now, most published scholarship about Irish theatre explores the history of Irish plays. The Gate has of course presented some notable premieres, from The Old Lady Says No to Philadelphia Here I Come! – and it usually gets credit for that. But I think it’s fair to say that in any history of Irish drama from the last 20 years or so, Field Day has received more attention than the Gate, and of course the Abbey still dominates. The Gate is definitely mentioned, often appreciatively, but rarely discussed in any depth or detail.

But if we wrote our histories of Irish drama based on acting rather than writing then the Gate would surely have a dominant role. Likewise, a history of Irish stage design would have to focus an enormous amount of attention on the Gate. At a time when our scholarship is moving much more towards theatre studies rather than drama studies (that is, we research the plays that are produced in Irish theatres rather than looking at plays that are written by Irish authors), the Gate is starting to get more attention, particularly for its impact on Beckett. Indeed, I’m aware of two PhDs currently being written on the history of the Gate – one of them by Des Lally here at NUI Galway and another in Holland. But there’s still a lot more work to be done on the theatre and its influence.

So while watching Streetcar I was struck by the ways in which the Gate can strongly be associated with ‘the actor’ (and the singular is deliberate). I’m thinking here (of course) of Mac Liammoir, and also of the way in which the theatre has during its history hosted such actors as Orson Welles. That tradition has continued under Michael Colgan, who has  produced many high profile shows that are dominated by single strong figures. There are many examples of this: Michael Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe; Ralph Fiennes, Ingrid Craigie and Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer; Owen Roe in Uncle Vanya and Faith Healer; John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape; Lia Williams in Eccentricities of a Nightingale; Cillian Murphy in The Shape of Things; Jason Patric and Flora Montgomery in Bash; Barry McGovern in Watt and  and so on.

This is not to say that they ignore ensemble: think of the quality of their Homecoming with Ian Holm, Ian Hart, Nick Dunning, Lia Williams and John Kavanagh – or of their long-running Godot  – or Selina Cartmell’s Festen and Sweeney Todd. But they are a theatre that has done much to promote an awareness of the importance and perhaps even the mystique of the actor. This goes far beyond the business of casting celebrities in order to gain an audience (though Michael Colgan spoke openly in his Theatre Talk interview about the commercial benefits of what he called “eventing”). What I’m suggesting here is that one of the important aspects of the Gate’s ethos is the staging of plays that provide lead actors with opportunities to show their virtuosity, by playing challenging roles in well known Irish and international plays.

So Streetcar is in many ways a quintessential Gate Theatre production, not just because it’s directed and designed to a high-standard, but because it’s a celebration of the skills and dynamism of Lia Williams. There are also outstanding performances from Garret Lombard, Denis Conway and Catherine Walker in the play’s main supporting roles.

As Stanley and Stella, Lombard and Walker seem unusually relaxed in their roles, while Conway’s carefully controlled voice and movements convey the sense in which his character (Mitch) is both decent and cowed. And Williams’s performance is seriously impressive, mainly because she does such a good job at showing that Blanche is essentially a very hammy actor in a play that no-one else wants to participate in.

For instance, there’s a very nice  moment between Williams and Lombard,  when Stanley has grabbed some of Blanche’s letters which have fallen to the floor. Blanche desperately wants these letters back and also wants them to remain untouched by anyone – yet she’s very frightened of Stanley. So she twice reaches towards the letters, about to grab them from Stanley’s hands – but at the last minute pulls back. This conflict between Blanche’s fears and her desires is genuinely dramatic, and actually very touching.  At the third attempt, while reaching forward Blanche suddenly turns her hand around – moving from a grabbing gesture to a supplicatory one. Stanley then hands over the letters.

In those three movements, we learn a lot about Blanche (her ability to use acting as a way to manipulate others, the strength of her feelings for her former lover, and so on). And we also learn that what threatens Stanley most about Blanche is that she is prepared to assert and act upon her own desires. A key question here is whether those gestures are being performed by Williams for the audience, or by Blanche for Stanley – and the answer is that both of those suggestions are probably true. All of that is evident from the script, of course, but these small gestures help to fill out the characters in new ways.

I was also very struck by the quality of the lighting design, which is by Paul Keogan. The Kowalskis’ home is on a slightly raised platform on the stage, and all of its walls are exposed. This means that we can see lights all around the stage, including from the back – so occasionally the lights glare right out into the auditorium. I loved the fact that the positioning of the lights meant that we never lost sight of the fact that we were watching a play: the stage mechanics were obvious not just in the lights but also in the ways in which the actors drew curtains, picked up discarded props, and so on. This was a reminder that Blanche is never off-stage: she’s constantly performing, constantly acting as if she’s in a spotlight. So the design did much to underline Blanche’s theatricality.

Some of what I’m trying to convey about Keogan’s design is evident from the photo of Catherine Walker below, which is by Peter Rowen, and which I have copied from the production website.

The lighting also guarantees that the audience would never fully see Streetcar as an example of cinematic realism. There’s a simple way to make a mess of any production of Tennessee Williams, and that’s to ignore his plays’ expressionistic qualities.  If you direct Streetcar as if it were written by, say, Arthur Miller, its symbolism and language will seem heavy-handed. Instead, we need to feel that the world on stage is being presented as if seen through Blanche’s eyes: it needs to be vaguely histrionic, melodramatic, over-wrought.

Keogan’s lighting helps to achieve that impact brilliantly: he uses vivid reds, greens and blues to capture and emphasise Blanche’s changing moods, and to show that for Williams there is often a strong link between colour and emotion. One of the things I always enjoy about Keogan’s lighting is that you can see how carefully he’s read the script – and here he is revealing aspects of the play that could easily have seemed heavy-handed but now seem fresh and even original.

Denis Clohessy’s sound design is also really excellent: we have a constant sense of the world beyond the stage – and thus of the ways in which Stanley and Stella are part of a much bigger community. That design gives their home a sense of warmth but also adds occasionally to Blanche’s sense of being trapped.

So again this emphasised to me how important the Gate has been for Irish stage design. Hilton Edwards is important here, but it’s worth recalling that the theatre has also hosted work by people like Louis Le Broquy and Robert Ballagh too.

All of this shows that the direction too is impressive, mainly because it was so unobtrusive. Ethan McSweeny does bring an original approach to the play. The casting of Conway as Mitch, for example, shifts the dynamic quite interestingly: the character is supposed to be in his early 30s, but here is older – making Blanche’s play for him seem more opportunistic and Mitch’s eventual disillusionment more poignant. But McSweeny also delivers a very solid and faithful production of a very difficult play. In terms of technical accomplishment it reminded me a lot of Annabelle Comyn’s staging of Tom Murphy’s the House at the Abbey last year.

As someone who teaches drama, I’d have loved to take students who are just starting out to see this production. I’d expect that they’d learn a lot about how to act and indeed how to direct from watching it – but I’d also expect them to be excited by the excellence of the design too. This is a production in which everyone involved is, to use a cliché, at the top of their game: it shows how good you need to be to create this kind of theatre – but it also shows how enjoyable theatre can be when it’s done really well by disciplined, talented practitioners.

One final note. I’ve mentioned before that many Irish writers state that their main influence is not another Irish dramatist – but is in fact Tennessee Williams. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking of her statement at the Synge School that she’d love to direct Williams’ plays, but Marina Carr’s presence seemed palpable throughout this production. There’s a moment, for example, when Blanche appears in a white dress with a  veil over her head – and for a moment I had a flashback to Olwen Fouere in the same costume in Carr’s By the Bog of Cats back in 1998 (given the play, this was probably post-traumatic stress disorder). Likewise, the stylised direction of the scene in which Stan attacks Blanche immediately reminded me of Tom Hickey as Red Rafferty in Druid’s On Raftery’s Hill.

This illustrates again that there is a strong symbiotic relationship between international and Irish drama, that Irish plays are richer because of the influence of non-Irish work.

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Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, National Theatre London

I just saw a very good production of Eugene O’Neil’s Strange Interlude at the National Theatre in London. As you’d expect from O’Neill, it’s massively ambitious, encompassing several decades in the life of Nina, a woman who is unusually self-possessed and sexually assertive (for a female character in a 1920s American play, anyway…).

The play is also formally experimental, using asides to present the inner thoughts of  the characters. The ensuing contrast between what people say and what they’re thinking is often very funny, but the cumulative effect is to create the impression that in some ways O’Neill is trying to reverse engineer Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in his earlier plays took the inner self and externalised it, not only through the use of soliloquies but also, and more interestingly, by personifying human emotions. Hence, jealousy took the form of the villain John the Bastard in Much Ado, who in turn became the far more sophisticated and interesting Iago in Othello – until in Winter’s Tale the jealousy took place entirely within the mind of Leontes, and was all the more horrifying for that. Where Shakespeare started by externalising emotion and worked his way in towards psychological credibility, O’Neill is working his way out – perhaps trying to dramatise the inner life of his characters in the way that Joyce had done with Ulysses a few years earlier. But unlike in Joyce – and unlike in Shakespeare – O’Neill’s characters’ thoughts are sometimes so dense and intense that they don’t always ring true when spoken aloud: our minds move faster than our voices ever can, after all.

As a result of that technique, some of the exposition in the play feels a bit awkward, but the overall effect is very interesting, adding depth to characters who might easily be played as caricatures, and eliciting far more sympathy for the play’s mildly ridiculous author-figure Charlie than he probably deserves. And the contrast between how the characters appear to others and what they feel about themselves is both funny and poignant.

And the acting is very good. The lead role is played by Anne-Marie Duff. I’ve only ever seen her perform live once before, in Druid’s 2004 production of Playboy of the Western World. She seemed a bit uncomfortable in that role: she was playing opposite Cillian Murphy, and she seemed oddly subdued opposite his hyperactive Christy – and was also overshadowed by Aisling O’Sullivan’s impish Widow Quinn. But here she’s very impressive – those old reviewers’ clichés about actors ‘owning the stage’ are apt, since she confidently dominates every scene from start to finish. It’s difficult to explain that dominance by reference to one specific thing that she does: there is the decisiveness of her movements, the unobtrusive but unignorable melody of her voice, her skill in adding weight to the apparently inconsequential, and much more. But, to use another reviewers’ cliché, the most impressive aspect of her performance is that we never notice she’s acting.

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Also impressive as Charlie is Charles Edwards, who manages the tricky balancing act of being the butt of many of the play’s jokes as well as the focal point for much of the audience’s sympathy. And as usually happens in the Littleton, there are lots of impressive scene changes on that lovely revolving stage in there.

Eugene O’Neill is sometimes claimed as an Irish playwright – though, of course, this usually happens only in Ireland. Strange Interlude is one of his least “Irish” plays, though its lengthy consideration of the ethics of abortion would certainly have an impact in the country today. But I still found myself regretting the fact that we rarely see these big American plays – the loose baggy monsters of the theatre world – in Ireland.

Since the turn of the century, most of Arthur Miller’s famous plays have appeared in Ireland (The Crucible at the Abbey and Lyric, All My Sons at the Abbey, View from the Bridge, the Price and Death of a Salesman at the Gate). Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar is about to be produced at the Gate, and there have been a couple of productions of Glass Menagerie by smaller regional companies. And the Gate staged Eccentricities of a Nightingale a few years ago. Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo have appeared a couple of times; Boston Marriage has been done twice (by B*spoke and the Gate), perhaps because it’s not a very typical David Mamet play. And I think I’ve seen three productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Ireland: one at the Gate in the mid-1990s, another in the Galway Arts Festival starring John Mahoney a few years later, and then Druid’s production with James Cromwell in (I think) 2008. And one of the first shows I ever saw at the Abbey was The Iceman Cometh with Brian Dennehy, just over 20 years ago. So we do get to see the American ‘classics’ from time to time, but rarely see anything more unusual.  I’d love to see plays like Miller’s American Clock or The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and almost anything else by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.

I know that the economics of the Irish stage have an impact here: most of those plays I’ve mentioned call for a large cast and would be unlikely to attract a large audience without a star actor in (at least) one of the leading roles. And Strange Interlude is three and a half hours long, and Irish audiences are reputed to get cranky when faced with the prospect of missing their last bus home (aka last orders).

But I was struck tonight by the Irish echoes in Strange Interlude – the similarities between O’Neil’s women and Synge’s female characters, the hints of an affinity with O’Casey’s use of language (I could understand how the two men would end up being friendly a few years later)… And just as Irish writers influenced O’Neill (or were similar to him in interesting ways), I’m often surprised by the way in which so many Irish dramatists state, when asked who their influences are, that Tennessee Williams is one of the major figures in the development of their work.

Well – in the meantime, Strange Interlude is well worth catching if you are in London.