HOUSTON -- The Alley Theatre is singing the praises of Not About Nightingales, an obscure early effort by Tennessee Williams being given its world premiere by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and Corin and Vanessa Redgrave's Moving Theatre, in association with Houston's Tony Award-winning regional company.
Reviews were good from major British newspapers. In some cases, they were raves. Having opened Mar. 5 at the Royal National's Cottesloe Theatre in London, under the direction of Royal National artistic director Trevor Nunn, Not About Nightingales runs through May.
Not About Nightingales was written in 1938 when Williams was in his late 20s and a playwrighting student at University of Iowa, and when he still went by his given first name, Tom. A prison drama arguing against inhumane conditions, it is based on actual events in a Philadelphia jail involving rebellious inmates, a hunger strike, and sadistic punishment. It was discovered by Vanessa Redgrave at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin; the Ransom Center houses extensive Williams archives, including manuscripts from approximately 1,000 works. Redgrave came across it in 1996 while in Houston during the first collaboration between the Alley and Moving Theatres: repertory productions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Not About Nightingales marks the Alley's initial relationship with the Royal National.
Nicholas de Jongh wrote in The Evening Standard, "This is one of the most remarkable theatrical discoveries of the last quarter century. I came away astonished and appalled." Ever relevant -- given contemporary prison abuses -- it "ought to rank as one of the best theatre-documentaries. With a cinematic structure, an almost Jacobean sense of horror and suffering, and poetic flashes of later Williams, the play remains unlike anything else he wrote."
The reviewer for The Independent lauded it as a "searing social drama . . . dealing graphically with inhumanity, cruelty, suffering, betrayal, and tenderness." It "emerges as an impassioned plea for justice and humanity." Michael Billington in The Guardian said that while "there are times when Williams falls into easy narrative traps . . . what prevents the play lapsing into melodrama is Williams' astute understanding of the prison power structure." Ultimately it is "a gripping contest between two iron men," the sadistic warden and the magnetic prison ringleader. "The play may not be an undiscovered masterpiece, but it proves Williams, from the outset, was always a radical writer on the side of the oppressed."
The reviewer for The Times considered it a "fascinating, off-putting paradoxical curio . . . Its strengths, which are its fierce indignation and anti-fascist passion, push some characters toward caricature; the young, inexperienced dramatist should have trimmed and cut, hinted and implied rather more; but the text lets Nunn and his designer, Richard Hoover, create the feel of a 'model' prison that is actually what one inmate describes as 'a little corner of Hell.'" Overall, it "presages play after play by a dramatist who was to make entrapment and restlessness, imprisonment, flight and freedom, his moral and emotional themes."
Nunn's direction was similarly well-received. The Independent called it a "breathtaking and coruscating production." The most critical response, de Jongh's in The Evening Standard was that things unfolded "too leisurely" in places; nevertheless, "the brutal and brutalizing regimen, crocodiles of prisoners shuffling in single line and each man with hands upon the man in front, is brought to vituperative life. Indeed, the final punishment ordeal was almost too horrible to witness." From the universally praised international cast, which included three Alley actors, James Black, Sherri Parker Lee, and Noble Shropshire, garnering particular acclaim was Corin Redgrave, as the sadistic warden. And Hoover's forbidding set of somber grays and mechanistic steel was also widely praised.
As might be expected, it's rumored that New York and Los Angeles producers are considering Not About Nightingales. The Alley has announced it will import the production to Houston first, perhaps as early as this summer. It has already gotten approval from American Actors Equity to bring in the cast. But the Alley needs to find some $250,000 outside of its budget to mount it. And the London set is configured in such a way that it won't fit on either of the Alley's two stages, so an alternative venue would most likely have to be found.
-- By Peter Szatmary