Tennessee William’s most difficult and maddening play, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, gets a sumptuous freshening up and academic airing.
Miriam sits in the bar of a Tokyo hotel: alone, frustrated, and flirting gregariously with the barman. But for all her “vitality”, her artist husband, on the verge of either a breakthrough or a breakdown, is driving her to desperation.
Reviving a renowned flop is always an odd and risky choice. Considered Williams’ “worst” play, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is what many say marked the beginning of the end for Williams, and is completely unrecognisable against his better known successes such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But time is sometimes the greatest healer, and “The Phoenix Machine” have proven that a bit of chronological space and a new point of view on a show can change its fortunes, like they have done with Titanic, Dogfight, and Grand Hotel. So, the question is, whether director Robert Chevara and their team can find something new, modern, and relevant to make Williams’ stinker come up roses? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’, the production itself really does give it an astonishing new lease of life and insight into Williams’ as a writer, but ‘no’ because the problem with In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel really is the writing, which stops it from being anything near a ‘good’ play.
It would be easy to say that, because In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is least like any other of Williams’ plays, you should forget that its by him. Certainly, with characters monologuing through the fourth wall, not finishing sentences or finishing someone else’s sentences, it’s more akin to something later and/or by someone like Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. But by striking Williams’ association with In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, you’re just left with a strained and fractured attempt at gritty surrealism that pales in comparison to plays in the similar vein. Even though there are plenty of deep themes, such as impending doom and brazen character hypocrisies, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel isn’t gratifying because it’s so frustrating and unwieldy.
Therefore, it’s actually paramount to remember that this is written by Williams’. There are certainly flashes of his trademark observation and wit, especially when characters have moments of fluidity and grounded consciousness, such as a beautifully sardonic musing on the hidden nature of flowers. Mostly is that there are other skewed parallels which explain In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel that are actually what you’re there for, if you’re able to stay with it. Williams’ character, Mark, is trying to breakthrough into a new style of art, and you get the sense that In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is Williams’ doing the same with his writing. There’s also Miriam’s battle with alcoholism, depression, and dependency that also mirrors Williams’. Then, there’s just the sheer irony of fractured English being spoken in a foreign country. But even if you do spot these reflections through the play’s opaqueness, these still don’t quite make In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel a good play. Why? Because everything is unconvincingly contrived, things escalate unbelievably suddenly, and the characters are unsatisfying living satires of themselves with epidermic complexity but little muscular depth. But there is a hidden diamond that is the otherwise unnoticed gravitas of Williams’ strained introvision, giving In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel a dramatic academic framing.
The problem with reviving In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is that it’s always going to be a museum piece: it’s simply not good enough a play for it to be a success on its own merit. But at the same time, it’s a vitally important play that you don’t disassociate Williams from it. In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is an incredibly important part of him, and essential in understanding him as an incredible artist in the most comprehensive way: a real “warts and all” endeavour. Therefore, whilst I would never qualify that doing background reading is necessary before seeing any show, doing a little research would certainly help you understand the context and importance of In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel better. Tim Bano’s feature in The Stage comes highly recommended if you can get your hands on it.
In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is a piece for die-hard Williams’ fans; we’re not talking the “I quite liked A Streetcar Named Desire: let’s try this,” crowd, but a show for those who know Williams’ as an icon and a person, or at least open to something completely different. Therefore my four stars comes with the caveat that this review is from a place of knowledge and appreciation for Williams’ (as well as encompassing the fantastic production of the show). But if you’re not prepared or expecting what In the Bar of A Tokyo Hotel is, it can so easily be hated because, regardless of everything said above, it’s ultimately a crap play.
Direction & Production
The entire production of In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is absolutely astonishing. Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s set is one of the few shows to really capitalise on the potential of the Charing Cross Theatre as a space: a grand raked stage, playing with perspective as well as 1960s hotel chic, with a dramatic stage-to-rigging window onto the cyclorama. This in turns gives lighting designer Andrew May a real gift to make some really subtle but striking moments, specifically, projecting the ever churning motion of paint/blood in water almost unnoticeable into glowing omnipresent sky-blues of the background lighting.
Chevara’s direction is almost as difficult as In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel at points: awkward act transitions, and possibly some very deliberately unconvincing moments, echoing Williams’ own broken stanzas. But everywhere else, there’s real time taken in the pacing that not only slow boils to the play’s climax, but really wants to get beyond the superficial rubbishness of the text itself to explore what In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is really saying about the author. It’s a big sultry and captivating ponder that comes from an intelligence and deep curiosity for the play, and is exactly the sort of direction that is crucial to preventing the production from rushing through without understanding it.
It’s really difficult to gauge the cast when the dialogue is as difficult as this. Regardless, David Whitworth, as frantic artist Mark, really gets behind some bone shaking rants. His character may well be Shakespeare’s idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but there’s a wild power in Whitworth’s performance that is verging on frightening as these are delivered with such conviction and stark madness. Then, billed Linda Marlowe, has astonishing moments when her character indulges in loquacious moments of dark emotional colour. Marlowe goes from inappropriate try-hard cougar to a woman drowning in sheer pathos, but never quite letting go of her swaggering cool. These moments are Marlowe at her most theatrically seductive, leaving you gorging on her enigma and intrigue when it happens.
In the Bar of A Tokyo Hotel isn’t really more than a difficult piece of academia. But there’s a sumptuous effort behind it that, for those wanting to complete the portrait of the theatrical institution that is Williams, you can’t help but lap up, even if you leave a little sore.
In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel plays at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL, until 14 May 2016. Tickets are £17.50 – £29.50. To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.