Mister Paradise and other Rare Electrical Things between People

Tennessee Williams revisited

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 15.01.2016

Fresh, quirky and wild. But also beautifully poetic and full of pain. The five one-act plays you can currently see at the Théâtre National are bound to take you by surprise, partly because they are so diverse in terms of style and atmosphere, but, above all, because of the interpretation they are given. Anne Simon, who directs (and appears in a cameo role), shows once again that she is eager to tread new paths and refuses to play it safe.

Whereas recent London productions – The Rose Tattoo with Zoë Wanamaker and A Streetcar Named Desire with Rachel Weisz – treated Williams with the kind of deference British directors routinely reserve for Chekhov, Simon cuts through the wordiness and frees the plays in all sorts of ways.

Again and again, characters stand at a crossroads in their lives. In the classic Williams manner, new options might open up in front of them for an instant or just remain objects of speculation in their heads.

The evening kicks off with the most innocent encounter possible: an aspiring young poet (an extremely moving Elisabet Johannesdottir) visits an old, forgotten writer (Steve Karier) who has literally been pushed to the edge. The long beard, the layers of clothes under the scruffy dressing gown and the chapka tell it all! Mister Paradise gradually turns into a battle of wills, raising issues around fame and identity. It sets the star-studded romantic passion of a young admirer against the pessimism of a reclusive writer whose volume of poetry has ended up in an antiques shop, where it serves to balance the legs of a small Chinese tea-table.

While the other four plays blow you away with their rhythm as well as their energy and incisiveness, this is the only one that does not work so well since it remains a little static.

Yes, in The Fat Man’s Wife there is the perennial entertainment of watching a drunk (a brilliant Steve Karier) take off his shoes or pour himself another drink, but these slapstick elements alternate with moments of deep disillusionment and loss. The wife (Christine Probst-Staffen), a bored New York socialite, sets keeping up appearances above looking for personal happiness. She would rather put up with her husband’s infidelities than brave scandal and the unknown. So the kindness of a dashing stranger (Daron Yates) scares her off.

And then, there is Lily, why do you smoke so much?, a savage mother-daughter confrontation. Absolutely electrifying both in terms of the writing and the acting, it feels as if someone were spilling their guts out on stage – there is so much bile, venom and resentment. Smoking yourself to death becomes a desperate act of rebellion in corseted 30s America, an act of breaking free from parental expectations and social ambitions that make life hell for everyone.

The Big Game, which is set in a hospital ward, is perhaps the most moving text as the hospital becomes a place where privacy dies and fleeting destinies meet. Finally, there is the eerie world of life under a military dictatorship in The Municipal Abattoir.

These five plays, none of which were published during Williams’ lifetime, turn out to be so much more than meaningful vignettes. The pain of living and the traps we too often lay for ourselves are depicted with empathy, but also with irony and sarcasm.

The architectural set (Lisa Ueberbacher) is brilliantly versatile as three big blocks of steps can become a monumental staircase as well as a hospital ward or a city street. The acting is spot-on throughout. In fact, the many instant metamorphoses the four actors have to go through are central to the delight of watching each of the plots unfold. In this context the stunning hairstyles (Joël Seiller) – from glossy and neat to tousled or wacky – deserve special mention!

Mister Paradise and other Rare Electrical Things between People, Théâtre National, January 16, 17, 21 and 22; www.tnl.lu.
Janine Goedert
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