Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré is, like many of his late works, an odd play. Written in 1978 it defies not only conventions of genre but offers a poetic richness of characterisation that is rarely to be found in a theatre these days. In a dilapidated New Orleans house surrounding an old court yard the confused land lady of a guest house, controls the comings and goings of her tenants with a sharp eye. Among them is a young writer (Tom Ross-Williams) who struggles with his sexuality and ghosts from the present and past. 

In its style Vieux Carré is very reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with it’s accumulation of little stories and motives rather than focusing on strong narratives. Set in the infamous French Quarter of New Orleans, establishing a certain tone takes precedent over conflict and motivations. It’s a melancholic social study that doesn’t fall back on a social realism devoid of any poetic beauty. Set designer Nicolai Hart Hansen and the prop department have done a wonderful job giving it a colour and effectively using the intimate space of the King’s Head. Three bedbug-ridden cots and a piano dominate the stage and represent the rooms of the residents of this madhouse in 722 Toulouse Street. Capturing the decay of moral and society, the set is wistful but unobtrusive so that the Williams’ text can shine.

Set in the Great Depression and at its heart a play about sickness, the light-heartedness of the beginning is probably one of the most surprising things about this piece. David Whitworth as the ageing artist Nightingale, who tries to seduce the nameless writer, has great comedy timing especially in the first half. But then of course Williams doesn’t really do light-hearted, and as time passes it all transforms into a horrible cesspool of human failure and disease. Everyone is this play is plagued with some sort of ailment: lungs, brains and eyes are failing them. However, there are so many beautifully crafted facets to all these characters that it is a twisted joy to bathe in their misery.

Standing out is Paul Standell’s over-sexualised Tye, a rather simple-minded being who initially doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. As the only character who is not physically lacking (actually very far from it, I might add) and aided by Standell’s convincing performance, the production is forcefully anchored outside of a mere dream sphere. When it’s his time to let his guard down and we discover his depths it’s horrifyingly violent and heart-breaking at the same time. There is a great bit of casting with Anna Kirke and Hildegard Neil as the two starving old ladies who are malnurtured and yet still obsessed with food. Sadly their story isn’t taken to any sort of conclusion, but that’s also part of the morbid magic of Tennessee Williams’ writing - he knows how to pick at the scabs of humanity and leaves the audience itching.

It’s a bit of a theatrical sleight of hand by both writer and director to create a melancholy the audience is drawn into and repulsed by at the same time. There are one or two strange stylistic decisions that are a bit jarring, but they don’t really deter from the fact this is a bold revival.

I could never quite understand why Williams had fallen into disrepute in the late stages of his writing life, but then again I wasn’t even born when he died. His experimental style, his outlandish ideas and his twisted, dancing language deserve to be heard and seen - not because of unquestioning reverence for the man himself, but because issues like self-worth in the face of sickness and decay of society are relevant now as they were when this was written. Williams might have been ahead of his time in 1978 and with this production director Robert Chevara has done much more than simply staging a stylistically daring play; he has proven that a Tennessee Williams renaissance is truly in order. There is still much more joy to be had and more pain to be suffered.

Vieux Carre, at King's Head, IslingtonAnnegret Maerten reviews Vieux Carre at the King's Head Theatre.4