Robert Chevara interview
Robert Chevara explains why a late play is Tennessee Williams's masterpiece
It's the end of another long day of rehearsals and director Robert Chevara is on a high. Just 20 minutes ago he was at The King's Head Theatre where he's directing a major London revival; his excitement is palpable. 'This play is so brilliantly written and incredibly moving,' he says breathlessly. 'It truly is a blazing twentieth-century masterpiece.'
The play is 'Vieux Carré' ('French Quarter') - Tennessee Williams's largely autobiographical work about an aspiring writer, Tom, and the bizarre inhabitants he encounters in a dilapidated New Orleans boarding house. Williams began writing it in 1938, but it wasn't finished until 40 years later, when it had its British premier at The Piccadilly Theatre in 1978. Thirty years on and Chevara is bringing it back to London.
'The original production had enormous sets which meant that you missed how great the writing was,' says the London-born director, whose credits include four years with the English Touring Opera. 'The intimacy of the space at The King's Head will hopefully mean that people will be hanging on every word of the story. The passion and compassion in the poetry of Williams's writing is simply astounding. He is so close to Shakespeare with the music in his words and the way that everyone gets a great part.'
The characters range from twenty year old Tom to a gay man in his seventies with a penchant for cottaging. 'These are the people that Williams wrote about for the rest of his life,' explains Chevara. 'He went to New Orleans after he was kicked out of home by his father for being a sissy. At the time he wasn't out and was incredibly repressed, but it was there that he met all of the characters who helped him become the artist that he became.'
Williams uses these troubled figures to explore his familiar themes of desire, nostalgia and crushing loneliness. 'All of his plays deal with the truth - of someone trying to tell the truth and nobody else listening,' says Chevara. 'Here we have the Williams character finally coming out as a gay man and finding his voice as a writer - then deciding that he has to leave the house because he realises that redemption is only found in telling those truths and moving on.'
Though Williams authored such seminal plays as 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' and 'A Streetcar Named Desire', producing one tour de force after another in the 1950s, by the time 'Vieux Carré' came out in the 1970s he had fallen out of favour with the critics as a lifetime of drinking and drug-taking had taken its toll. The play received a lukewarm reception and has been neglected ever since.
'I honestly don't know why this is,' says Chevara. 'The National thought about doing it at one point, but I think they decided it was unworkable because of the number of characters and the way the set moved. The original production also came out at a time when people were watching English drama and were increasingly critical of American plays that came over.'
Chevara believes that by the time Williams wrote 'Vieux Carré' he had really honed his talent. He hopes that people will finally embrace the piece as the dramatist's late great masterpiece. But how relevant does he think its dark depiction of homosexuality will be to modern audiences?
'I need to stress that this is not in any way an old person's play,' insists Chevara. 'It's got a young man's vitality in the writing; it's witty, bitchy and funny. Williams defined and redefined what we look for in ourselves. Whether you're born in London or in a tiny village there are still things that we have to fight against as gay people. There's still oppression and repression from school onwards, and we're constantly told how we're supposed to behave as men or women. Tennessee Williams speaks of the strangers in society, the other amongst us all - and that other is still there. His work still resonates with us because it contains an eternal truth about the pain, the pleasure and the passion of becoming who you are. That's a journey all gay men take.'
Vieux Carré' is at The King's Head Theatre until Aug 4