(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/8.)

As it is so rarely seen, this early play by Tennessee Williams feels like a major discovery. Williams began it in 1945 and endlessly revised it. Now a young director, Rebecca Frecknall, has given it a complete makeover. Eschewing realism, she adopts the expressionist tactics favoured by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove and palpably builds the production around Patsy Ferran, who confirms her status as one of the most exciting actors on the British stage.

Frecknall, designer Tom Scutt and Angus MacRae, credited with composition, join forces to give the action an unusual setting: a circular pit of sandy earth ringed by nine pianos that the ensemble periodically play to create atmosphere. The text tells us we are in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, between the turn of the 20th century and 1916. But here the focus is on the primal nature of a conflict between spirit and flesh.

Alma, who constantly tells us her name means “soul” in Spanish, is a parson’s daughter and singing teacher whose undeclared love for a neighbouring doctor, John Buchanan, has driven her into a state of neurosis. If Alma represents the soul, then John, both professionally and socially, stands for the body. But after a melodramatic shooting, Williams shows their roles ironically reversed.

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