As a young writer in the 1930s, Tennessee Williams slummed it in a New Orleans’ French Quarter sharehouse from hell. The American playwright would go on to pen A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire that have inspired awe in audiences worldwide since the late 1940s. An autobiographical piece by Williams is making its Australian premiere next year at the Midsumma Festival.
While Williams was apparently not ‘out’ as a gay man until after the Stonewall riots, some of his better known pieces like A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof toyed with the struggle of sexuality for people of that era. But an autobiographical piece by Williams is heading to our shores next year, making its Australian premiere at the Midsumma Festival.
Vieux Carré follows a young, naive and nameless writer who moves into a dilapidated boarding house in New Orleans.
It tracks the St. Louis writer (Williams) as he encounters his troubled roommates who are dealing with the ailments of the world including, but not limited to, addiction, poverty, illness, hunger, failure and death.
ITCH Productions is bringing the piece to Australia and company co-founder and Vieux Carré performer Des Fleming spoke to the Star Observer about the upcoming show. Fleming, who will play Tye McCool, a sexually ambiguous strip club bouncer with a drug addiction, said his role was definitely a challenge.
“From an acting point of view, it’s a beautiful role,” Fleming said.
“There’s a great challenge, a lot of meat in it, you know what I mean.”
Fleming’s character is just the start – the dysfunctional group includes his girlfriend, the uptown girl dying from leukemia and two older women actually starving to death.
“The variety of characters is one of the things that are key to this piece,” Fleming said.
“I was half-way through it, to be honest and I said this was one we should really look at doing.
“It was based on that variety of characters and their pain and their loneliness.
“These are the things that run right through Tennessee’s work but the fact it was all so autobiographical, you know he actually spent time in this room.”
The level of research undertaken by Fleming and director Alice Bishop is impressive: Bishop herself travelled to New Orleans to visit the actual room and take in the culture.
The story behind the piece is as almost compelling as the actual plot.
Williams began writing Vieux Carré in the 1930s but did not complete the piece more than 40 years later.
Fleming said it was unknown why Williams had shelved the play initially or why he decided to finish it in the ‘70s.
“For me he remains one of the most important artists of our time,” he said.
The Melbourne-based actor said he was personally drawn to the experiences espoused by the young writer as he questioned his sexuality and identity in the show.
“Audiences will probably experience the whole gamut of social prejudices,” he said.
“It’s really written about racism, sexism and homophobia and there’s the commonality that connects all of us: the fear, the joy and love, you know, hunger and loss.”
He said it was exciting to have the opportunity to put on a Tennessee Williams play, let alone an Australian premiere of a Tennessee Williams play.
“He has an encounter with the older artist and has a one night stand with a guy serving in the army and falls in love with him,”
“These are all things I can identify with, particularly for a gay audience I think there is a lot of material here that will have resonance.”
Music for the show has been a priority for the production team to capture the mood that would have existed back in New Orleans as one of the cultural hot beds for jazz music.
“In terms of creating atmosphere he would have walked those streets and music would have been emanating from the back of bars and the clubs,” Fleming said.
“It would have been very evocative for him and so he’s put it right through the script.”
Blues guitarist Bob McGowan has been brought on board to play live throughout the piece while percussionist Nat Grant will “live-loop” the music, recording the music in real-time and playing it back throughout the show.
“It’s a combination of a cinematic effect and having a soundtrack to the work which is very important in creating atmosphere,” Fleming said.
Vieux Carré makes its Australian premiere on January 17 and runs until February 3 at fortyfivedownstairs.