When they write the history of 20th century American drama (they probably already have, actually) three names will stand out as being the greatest writers amongst them: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. When I was first discovering theatre In A Big Way in my teens, I acquired the scripts to so many of their plays and totally devoured them. Of course, a play is a very different entity when you see it on stage as opposed to when you read it; and I’m not sure how much of the 16-year-old me would have really appreciated the niceties of Sweet Bird of Youth, just reading it propped up behind the bikesheds at school. My Penguin edition also contains A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, both of which I saw in my teens and confirmed me as a massive Tennessee Williams fan. It’s taken another forty years for me finally to see a production of Sweet Bird of Youth and I confess to you, gentle reader, I have committed the sin of overlooking this incredible play all my adult life.
Lousy gigolo and wannabe actor Chance Wayne is found in bed with formerly great actress Alexandra Del Lago, now hiding behind the soubriquet of Princess Kosmonopolis, in a posh hotel room littered with empty champagne bottles. Wayne’s back in his home town of St Cloud, much to the horror of the local Finlay family and their acolytes, who govern the town with a corrupt iron fist. Wayne’s former girlfriend, Heavenly, is the daughter of Boss Finlay and he’s not happy. In fact, he wants Wayne “gone by tomorrow – tomorrow begins at midnight”. Last time Wayne was with Heavenly, she got “infected”, and the infection had to be cut out, so that now she’s barren. If he stays, the local heavies are going to apply the same treatment to him (nasty). Wayne has this self-delusional idea that Miss Del Lago could get him into the movies (she could probably barely get him into the two-and-sixpenny’s) and that his new-found success will win Heavenly back. But none of this is going to happen. The women are washed-up, the men are corrupt, and hapless Wayne is caught in the middle. The only person in St Cloud on Wayne’s side is kindly Aunt Nonnie, who begs him to leave for his own safety; but Wayne is too much in love with himself to listen. How’s it all going to end? I was going to say, you’ll have to go see it for yourself, but you can’t because we saw the final performance! So you’ll just have to find another production!
It’s interesting that it is among the later of his great plays – Glass Menagerie first saw light of day in 1944, Streetcar in 1947, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955; Sweet Bird of Youth first appeared in 1959. Whereas those older plays were the product of Williams’ fervent youthful imagination – and considerable life experience – of his early to mid-thirties, by the time Sweet Bird hit the stage he was 48, and entering that time of life when it’s traditional to start your midlife crisis. The play is packed full of reminiscence, regret, and harking back to a time of youth. Alexandra Del Lago has lost her youthful attractiveness and box-office power; at 29, the wretched Wayne has only a few years left in him of his wayward lifestyle which showed such promise in his youth; his ex-girlfriend Heavenly is only a shadow of her former self (she was just 15 when Chance “had” her). In addition, local political scumbag Boss Finlay is holding a “Youth for Tom Finlay” rally upstairs at the Royal Palms Hotel, which emphasises the importance of youth and associates it with success; but what we actually see is the youth followers of Finlay beating up an (older) heckler, showing us the violent and destructive side of youth. Finlay has a policy of “southern segregation”, so these beautiful young things are actually supporting a thoroughly ugly concept. Youth may be a sweet bird at first, but it turns into a tough old bird if it doesn’t realise its promise.
This is the kind of big play and production that always feels absolutely right on the Festival Theatre stage. Anthony Ward’s brilliant set surprises you, scene by scene, as he creates a decadent hotel suite, the Finlays’ grand mansion, and the bar at the Royal Palms hotel with flowing ease. You get glimpses of the backstage area at the Royal Palms, where the rally is taking place, giving the illusion that the room goes on for miles. That bar scene is particularly effective, with all its bar-room trappings: the lethargic pianist; the vacuous young things laughing whole-heartedly at nothing at all; the well-paid discarded mistress dolled up to the nines; the very well-stocked bar tended by an arrogant young barman. It’s a superbly convincing staging.
The marketing for this show was very heavily based on the star performers playing the roles of the Princess and Wayne: Marcia Gay Harden, who’s done loads of films, TV and Broadway work; and Brian J Smith, who’s also done loads of Broadway, films, and Netflix’s Sense8. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you, gentle reader? Yep. Hadn’t heard a jot about either of them. Sometimes I feel we live on a different planet. However – hopefully this marketing did attract the audiences, because I have to say Miss Harden and Mr Smith both turn in incredible performances.
Much of the text concentrates on conversations between just the two of them – all of the lengthy first scene, and of course the final scene – and they are mesmeric. In that first scene, they instantly capture the atmosphere of both decadence and failure; Mr Smith in his offensively expensive satin pyjamas, always hovering around the bed but never comfortable in it; Miss Hayden, the opposite; emerging under the sheets in her black nightie that just manages to cover her enough to be decent, making sarcastic demands from the boy so that she doesn’t have to lift a finger. It really conveys the power imbalance within the relationship. Through the course of two and three quarter hours, Miss Hayden lets loose a full range of emotions from wheedling insecurity to provoked anger, and you just can’t take your eyes off her. Mr Smith, too, is fantastic at revealing his character’s catastrophic emptiness, always playing No 2 to those around him, relying on drunken happy-go-luckiness to survive his experience at the Royal Palms bar, understanding in the final scene that he has no more aces to play. It’s a brilliant performance.
The large ensemble company, many of whom have very brief but nevertheless effective roles, are all excellent. Dominating the stage in his own scenes is a superb performance by Richard Cordery as the horrendous Boss Finlay, chomping on and spitting out his cigar with all the finesse of a warthog, shaming his family members because they’re too weak to stand up to him, deluding himself about the existence of Miss Lucy; basically encapsulating everything you’d hate about a Southern Political Baron. And there’s definitely something of the Trump in there. I also really loved Ingrid Craigie as the much put-upon Aunt Nonnie; her scene where she approaches Wayne to encourage him to leave is heartfelt and gently funny – I loved how she goes there full of resolve but then just melts with his charm – totally believable. Emma Amos is a delightful Miss Lucy, fluttering around the bar like a true Tennessee Williams southern belle, relying on the kindness of strangers even though she isn’t in A Streetcar Named Desire.
I thought this was a stunning night’s theatre, performed with heart, a sense of injustice and a truthfulness that reveals the horror of life for a number of rather dissolute people. As I mentioned earlier, that was the final performance so I hope you got to see it. For me, Sweet Bird has now definitely taken its place among the great plays of the 20th century. There’s so much to get out of it; so much that’s only hinted at; so much to fear in it, so much to empathise with. Absolutely first class!
Production photos by Johan Persson