Thursday, April 14, 2016

'In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel' at the Charing Cross Theatre, 12th April 2016

You'd be forgiven for not having heard of Tennessee Williams' 1969 play In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, falling as it does from his less-praised and less-examined later career. Griefstricken by the death of his long term partner and repeatedly hospitalised for depression and substance addiction, contemporary consensus when this was first staged was that he was past his prime.

Critics were merciless, witheringly comparing his latter plays to glories like A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie. In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel was no exception, closing after just 25 performances and only sporadically revived since. 

And I can kinda see why.

The narrative centres on Miriam (Linda Marlowe), the cynically booze-soused wife of well-regarded artist Mark (David Whitworth). The two have decamped from New York to Tokyo to allow Mark space to explore his latest creative breakthrough, which involves writhing naked on a canvas while screaming abuse. This plunge into the avant-garde amps up Miriam's alienation, sending her off to the titular bar to find solace. Her method for achieving this is cocktails and groping the unhappy barman's (Andrew Koji) genitals.

As is expected in a Tennessee Williams play, things soon spiral into drunken, angry bickering. Miriam craves escape: either to Kyoto or the grave (she keeps a suicide pill she a silver snuff box). Her husband, possibly suffering from a brain tumour, has lost his sense of balance and coordination, not to mention that his manic ravings that he's discovered 'true' colour. The situation isn't improved by the arrival of Leonard (Alan Turkington) a mutual friend and gallery owner from New York who blithely dismisses Miriam's concerns and writes off Mark's bizarre behaviour as artistic eccentricity.

Almost from minute one fuzzily disconnected, numbness bubbles up and billows off stage. Characters talk in clipped, half-finished sentences that accentuate artificiality. In the programme, Tennessee Williams expert David Kaplan explains that the  distinctive style arises from the playwright's dabblings in Kabuki, Noh and Gutai performance art, an interest stemming from long conversations with genius novelist/supervillain fascist Yukio Mishima. The result is a play that feels zonked out on a codeine binge, crewed by a cast of characters who've mentally checked out of life.

Intellectually there's a lot of gristle to chew on. It's real easy to transpose what you know about Williams' mental condition to his writing. Most melancholic is him creating a former master artist losing control of his faculties; reduced to stumbling daubing in place of the precision he once wielded. When he slurs "pretension is the unpardonable offence" you feel a stinging sense of self-criticism and pity. This production exhorts us to "stop paying attention to Tennessee Williams' life and pay attention to what he wrote", but for my money this play only really succeeds if you approach it as a cracked prism through which to approach its author.

That's all well and good, but the thing is... well... actually sitting down and watching In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel isn't much fun. It's even (whisper it) a bit boring. It's difficult to criticise a show where the cast have (presumably) been explicitly told to play it flat and iron away any spontaneity from their interactions, but that doesn't wholly excuse an experience that, for all it's artistic worth, had me distractedly flicking through the programme and daydreaming about what I was going to have for dinner.

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel ultimately lands in the awkward category of productions it's far more interesting to discuss than experience. I respect what Tennessee Williams was going for and I respect what director Robert Chevera is trying to achieve here. But it's a huge curate's egg and probably only of interest to extreme Tennessee Williams fans.


In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 14 May. Tickets here.

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