The poetry of sex, insanity and dysfunction

Tennessee Williams was 33 before he had a hit play, whereupon he unleashed a deluge of them, including several at the very pinnacle of open-heart surgery and psychological insight. It’s easy enough to say such plays are timeless by definition, but with two, 1957’s Suddenly Last Summer and 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire, both opening in Sydney, actor Sheridan Harbridge and director Shaun Rennie have more specific ideas on why they sustain their pertinence.

One enduring triumph of Williams’ plays is the rich complexity of his women, epitomised by Catharine and Mrs Venable in Suddenly and Stella and Blanche in Streetcar. Alex Berlage’s Old Fitz Streetcar production has Catherine Van-Davies as Stella and Ben O’Toole as her belligerent husband Stanley, while Harbridge, recently acclaimed for her performances in Prima Facie and Stop Girl, plays the flighty, needy, duplicitous and tragic Blanche.

Tennessee Williams arriving at Dylan Thomas’s funeral in 1953. Photo: Walter Albertin.

Harbridge sees the play as still speaking to us so forcefully partly because it interrogates the psychology surrounding the shame of women’s sexuality. “We think we’re past it, but we’re not,” she insists. Having played a sexual assault victim in Prima Facie, Harbridge points to the loaded language routinely used to discuss such cases in most media, and goes on to discuss a new trend she’s seeing on social media of younger people shaming all depictions of sex in art. “Tennessee wrote extraordinarily daring things for his time, but it was coded,” she says. “All the homosexuality is coded. Now we’re going back through a cycle that we thought wouldn’t exist again of wanting to code, wanting to shame, wanting to hide sexuality.”

After directing Williams’ Baby Doll for Ensemble Theatre in 2019, Rennie returns to the do the confronting Suddenly Last Summer. Starring Andrea Demetriades and Belinda Giblin, it draws heavily on the playwright’s family history – notably that his mother, Edwina, signed off on his sister, Rose, having one of the US’s first frontal lobotomies. “Rose would say shocking things purposely to scandalise her mother, and so essentially Edwina had her silenced,” says Rennie.

“Often people think of Williams, and they think of lilting Southern accents, daiquiris and mint juleps. But what he says about the human condition – and his willingness to not shy away from some of the uglier sides of humanity – seems to stay incredibly relevant… There’s something here that maybe feels almost more shocking and more controversial now than it may have been in the ’50s.”

Sheridan Harbridge. Photo supplied.

Streetcar’s Blanche is also partly a metaphor for a fading South nostalgically clinging to beauty and art over grubby commerce. The parallel to the current place of art and beauty is stark, although Harbridge, hopes we might be turning a corner. “As an artist I feel like we’re coming out of a dark period,” she says, “and I’m trying to embed that into me and her [Blanche]. It can be a confusing time when everything you value has no worth on this earth anymore… I think many artists and many people go through an era where they no longer belong. You see it in many older artists as the sands shift around them: they get angry that what they value is no longer consumed with interest. And they don’t want to move on, because they found the way to express themselves.”

Rather than inventing his characters, Williams sucked them from his family, his lovers and his own multifaceted psyche, which, as Harbridge observes, stops them being archetypes. “It’s such a rich world to dive into,” she says. “He’s got so many twists and turns in the minds of his characters, and it’s so non-judgemental. That is what’s timeless.”

Rennie likens the process to directing Puccini, Shakespeare or Sondheim: works that keep revealing new layers the deeper one digs. He describes Suddenly as a “more cynical, brutal version” of the family history than Williams had portrayed previously in The Glass Menagerie, exposing the savagery lying beneath the veneer of civilisation, or, as Rennie puts it, capitalism’s “extreme Darwinism”.

Amazingly, Blanche is Harbridge’s first major role in a classic. She’s built her 15-year career entirely on new plays and established musicals, partially a result of suffering “imposter syndrome” when at drama school, and therefore never setting her sights on what she calls “the big guns”. “So when Alex asked me to do it, I actually felt sick,” she says. “But a lot of artists say, ‘If you’re terrified, you’ve got to do it.’ And I’m happily terrified.”

Shaun Rennie. Photo supplied.

Similarly, Suddenly is a play that made Williams afraid he’d exposed too much of himself – which is what brave artists do. Rennie says that you can more or less track the emotional problems with which he was dealing through the chronology of his work. In Suddenly, the absent Sebastian Venable is clearly Williams, himself. “It’s almost like he’s the dark matter of the play; this force that everything else revolves around,” says Rennie.

Another hallmark of Williams’ work is his heightened poetic language within naturalistic settings, without his own voice coming through the characters. Rennie relishes how good acting “allows the poetry of the language to hang in the air in a beautiful way”, even as the characters’ motivations may lie closer to the gutter. “When it flies it really flies,” he says, “and it becomes like a great aria: it can capture an emotion with what is being said, and the beauty of the way it’s being said as well.”

Harbridge describes Williams’ ability “to open the human psyche with poetry” as “intoxicating” to perform. “I think it’s because the poetry always comes from need,” she says. “It’s not poetry for poetry’s sake, it’s something coming from their solar plexus… It’s like enjoying a rococo painting next to that realism, and we see it, and we sigh with relief that part of our soul has been nourished with his colour.”

Suddenly Last Summer, Ensemble Theatre, until June 10; A Streetcar Named Desire, Old Fitz Theatre, June 3-July 1.