This autobiographical play is set in a run-down boarding house at 722 Toulouse in the French Quarter, the oldest neighborhood of New Orleans, the actual address where Tennessee Williams lived in the 1930s. " Here surely is a place I was made for" he wrote in his memoirs at the time and drafted a playscript on his experiences, but it was not until 1977 when Vieux Carre was first performed.
As a self portrait of Williams, the main character is a nameless young man, "The Writer," who is struggling with both the slow awakening of his literary voice and his sexual identity. In the house he is surrounded by a bunch of drifters, drinkers and degenerates, yet all creative artists who have lost their way in life.
We meet Nightingale, a lecherous gay painter suffering from TB, Jane, a cultured, but sick, New Yorker fashion designer, her junky lover Tye who works in a strip joint, and Sky, a clarinet player who is planning a road trip West. The melancholic landlady Mrs. Wire monitors and criticises her tenants’ perverse, immoral behaviour.
There’s no linear dramatic structure, but a snapshot of crazy incidents and (mainly sexual) encounters as witnessed by the Writer, or partially observed through one hazy, cataract eye.
The Wooster Group of New York specialise in Experimental work, taking a classic play, dissecting the text to rework literary themes, imagery and characterisation into an improvised, stylistic piece of multi-media theatre.
Around a cluttered, scaffolded set of beds, screens and tables, hang numerous screens, showing extracts from Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol films including the cult underground movie, “Heat.” Two elderly ladies living in the house, Mary Maude and Miss Carrie, are also depicted on monitors, but curiously these small screens are hung high, backstage. This imaginative use of video material was however difficult to view clearly, with speech at a low volume (despite the fact I was sitting in the front stalls.)
Ari Fliakos plays the Writer with a quiet, introverted sadness, consumed by his own fragility, memories and inadequacies, easily seduced by Nightingale to experience a tentative foray into homosexuality.
Some of the best scenes are late night conversations, as the rain splatters loudly on the window, over glasses (“three fingers”) of brandy, between the Writer and Jane, performed by Kate Valk with a bohemian-spiced intellectual wit. She may take a taxi cab, but is at heart a limousine lady. She compares the letter she receives from the Clinic about her blood count to one of his publisher's rejections, "Let's just say it was a sort of personal, signed rejection slip too." Later she realises her fate, “Who have I got to appeal to except God, whose phone's disconnected.”
The most evocative and engaging part of the performance, is the final 45 minutes or so, when The Writer finds his voice and the true story begins. He starts to type out an eloquent text, the words projected, faster and faster, on the back wall, his emotions, memories and dreams inspired by these lost, lonely people and their tragic lives.
These characters, based on the people Tennessee Williams met during his time at 722 Toulouse, were perhaps the precursors to the Beat generation, reminiscent of the first lines of Alan Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.”
“I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters … hollow eyed and high sat up smoking in supernatural darkness in cold water flats floating across the tops of cities, contemplating jazz.”
Vieux Carre ran at the Edinburgh International Festival 21-24 August, 7.30pm