The Vieux Carré is the old French Quarter in New Orleans. It's famous as one of the city's most colourful and historically interesting neighbourhoods. It's also a play by Tennessee Williams about a young writer, closely modelled on Williams himself, who moves into a boarding house on Toulouse Street in the 1930s.
In her new production, opening at fortyfive downstairs as part of the Midsumma Festival, director Alice Bishop is hoping to capture some of the colour and cultural eclecticism unique to New Orleans.
"It's just the most extraordinary, alive, colourful place," she explains to Time Out. "I think our expectations about Tennessee Williams are often drawn from those black-and-white films. When I was there myself, though, it was bright, it was neon, there were golden lights that lit up the whole French Quarter at night, the lights of Bourbon Street blink and during the daytime tourists are gaily caparisoned in horrific tropical shirts."
Bishop travelled to New Orleans as part of her research for the play – "I know, I know," she laughs, "but someone had to do it." – and visited the actual house which Williams stayed in. She describes it as all in pinks and greens, dilapidated, but still vibrant and colourful, and, like all the houses in that quarter, imbued with its own unique personality.
"There was so much immigration, from France and Spain, and what evolved was this distinctive Louisiana Creole people, who bring all this life and liveliness, with the architecture, food and Voodoo culture from the Haitians."
Bishop is not only a theatre director but also a blues musician, and so was struck by the city's sounds. "The first thing you notice," she says, "is the musicality of the accents, their tonal range. There is such variety, so many different accents, some of them utterly unique. You have a working class accent, where, you know, if you close your eyes, you can hear the ghost of a Jersey drawl behind it, but then two streets over, bumping up against it, you get the real upper-class, southern sing-song that audiences are more familiar with."
Williams has written these dialects and accents into the script itself, and the play reads like a musical score. "There's a character called Mrs. Wire," says Bishop, "and every time he writes the word 'yes' for her he writes 'yias'. He gives it a recognisable southern twang, giving you an instant clue into her social status, where she grew up and how he wants her to sound, the tonal range, for example."
While she was in New Orleans, Bishop drove down the famous Highway 61, the road connecting Memphis and New Orleans, staying in Clarksdale, home to the Delta Blues Museum, and she has incorporated blues music into her production, bringing in blues guitarist Bob McGowan and percussionist Nat Grant as live accompaniment.
This adds a unique personal aspect to the project, because McGowan is actually Bishop's own guitar teacher. McGowan has been playing in bands since the late 60s and is one of a number of "less young" performers in the production. According to Bishop, one of the most exciting thing in preparing Vieux Carré has been watching the younger cast members bonding with the older.
"I think it's very important to give away your best ideas," says Bishop. "I think it's very important to try and be generous to people who are coming after you and to not keep things to yourself."
This mirrors one of the play's themes, where the central relationship is between the young writer and an older artist, one raging against the dying of the light, who passes on some of what he has learned about the struggle of creative artists.
"There's a sense of mentorship, the young writer looking to the older artist," says Bishop, "looking at him as a charismatic person who has been around, and there's almost like a baton passing. Somebody at the end of his life, passing a baton to a younger artist, which is I think a beautiful thing."
Of course, their relationship is a bit more complex than that, it has other flavours. Vieux Carré premiered in 1977, but it existed in draft form as far back as 1939. The play was therefore written and re-written through a period when Williams was coming to terms with his homosexuality. In the late 1930s he was still conflicted and occasionally horrified by his desires, but by the mid forties he seems to have reconciled with himself, even if, working in the Hollywood system, he remained officially in the closet. It was only in the early seventies that he came out publically, something clearly pointed in Vieux Carré. "I think in his later work he got very, very truthful," says Bishop.
After the success of his earlier plays, the big classics, Williams' star declined somewhat. Many of his late works have never even been performed in Australia, including Vieux Carré. For Bishop, this presents an exciting opportunity, the chance to explore a new theatrical world.
"Often the critics of the time dismissed his later works, unfairly, I think, and a lot of them are only now being rediscovered. We're discovering this very modern writer who was always experimenting, with different forms, who was relentlessly prolific, who was constantly re-writing his work all through his life."