Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 16-10-12

Zoe Boyle as Maggie.
Production photograph by Keith Pattison.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an American icon and a difficult play for an English theatre company to get right. It has a very distinct southern American sensibility, and comes from a very different tradition. It can be done of course (there is such a thing as acting) but it doesn’t belong to us. In just the same way Terence Rattigan, the writer of The Deep Blue Sea, director Sarah Esdaile’s last project for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a very English playwright. There is a very particular atmosphere and mindset which you have to get right. Tennessee William’s work is not often performed here. I have managed to be a regular theatre goer for over thirty years without ever seeing one of his plays on stage, so it all promised to be very interesting.

I am going to start with the set, designed by Francis O’Connor, as it is vital that we are shown a complete other place, and we are. In front of us is a beautiful balconied southern mansion sitting in the middle of a hot steaming Louisiana bayou. It is quite stunning. The massive stage of the Quarry theatre loves a set like this and before a word is spoken we are able to see the world of the play. It informs everything we see, and it is much more than just a background for the action of the play- it is a reason and a justification for what we see as the plot unfolds. The characters have been formed by their landscape and property, tradition and inheritance are all themes within the play. The set of a play always matters, but it doesn’t always matter quite as much as this and it is dead right.

Jamie Parker as Brick and Richard Cordery as Big Daddy.
Production photograph by Keith Pattison.

Families are always a rich seam for drama and this family are seething with all kinds of emotion, grief, repressed desire, fear of mortality, greed, sexuality, jealousy, all doing their best to battle their way out through a family who are not able to talk to each other. Well, to be accurate they do talk, reams of emotion, ineffectual attempts to influence each other and bucket loads of angst, but every single one of them is talking into a vacuum. They don’t have the information they need about each other or the emotional capacity to fulfil each others needs in the way that they long to do. The appalling children who scream their way through the action or sing meaningless birthday greetings are a perfect metaphor for this, an unconscious shout of pain shot through the action. There is not one person on the stage who fully understands what is going on, never mind having the capacity to sort it out. Each of them are locked into their own worlds. Big Mamma, the wife who is desperate not to understand that her husband has never loved her. Maggie, the beautiful and desperate young wife who can never make her hunk of a husband Brick love her because he is too busy grieving for his real love who has died. Big Daddy, who has always been powerful and successful enough to get his own way in everything and is now faced with his own mortality, the one thing that none of us can face down or buy out. Mae and Gooper, who have never been liked by anyone, too pushy and greedy for their own good, and who are attempting to make up for that by breeding the next generation. All the major characters are coping with loss and attempting to compensate for this in ways that are doomed to failure. This is a powder keg of a play, rich and enigmatic and even at the end we are only given a glimmer of hope which will probably fade in the light of day.

A huge task for the actors then. The stand out performance for me was that of Richard Cordery as Big Daddy. He is the rock around which the play is built, and he is wonderful. He has the physical presence which the part demands and the emotional force which a rich man of influence and power has to have.The pain of his illness is beginning to cripple him, he is a great wounded beast fighting on until his last breath, a great spirit which is slowly fading into the night. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a great part given the performance it deserves. Jamie Parker and Zoe Boyle are also very well cast as Brick and Maggie and grow into their parts as the play progresses. The long first scene is full of subtext and quite a difficult one to pull off, for Maggie because she carries almost the whole weight of the dialogue and for Brick because we somehow have to see what he is thinking without being told, but as the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle begin to fit together for us the characters come into their own. I’m afraid Amanda Boxer’s Big Mamma didn’t convince me quite so much. I wanted more heart and less of what seemed to me to be external “acting”.

I am a great admirer of Sarah Esdaile as a director, having seen her production of Death of a Salesman (the best I am ever likely to see) and The Deep Blue Sea at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This production is beautifully drilled. The supporting characters, children, servants, provide a background which is telling without being overdone (there is one character who I wanted to tone down a bit but since the lady behind me was full of admiration for the performance I will stay silent) and everything happens perfectly without any drops in pace or atmosphere. There is a clear understanding of the world of the play and a sympathy for Tennessee Williams characters which underpins everything on stage without being too overt or overblown. Really impressive work.

It has taken far too long for me to get to see a Tennessee Williams play, not just read one, and my late start was a great introduction to how powerful and complex his work is. I am very glad to have had the chance. It will stay with me for a long time.

The Deep Blue Sea. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 26-02-11

When Terence Rattigan came out of the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and told a waiting journalist that it should have been called “Look How Unlike Terence Rattigan I’m Being” he clearly knew that his time was up. England’s most popular playwright of the late nineteen thirties and forties had seen the future and it didn’t look like he was going to be a part of it. The debonair millionaire lifestyle of the frankly rather flash former Harrow schoolboy was under threat. He was used to success. In 1944 three of his plays had been running in the West End at the same time, two of his plays ran for over 1,000 performances and another four for more than 500, and at one time he was the highest paid screenwriter in the world. He was right to worry. It was a spectacular fall from popular taste and during his lifetime his reputation never recovered. Since then his plays have been seen, but the theatregoers of his heyday would have been astonished to know how little.

2011 is the centenary of his birth and it is a chance to look back, not in anger but with curiosity, to see whether he was actually any good. The first major production of his centenary is the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s revival of The Deep Blue Sea, written in 1952, with Maxine Peake as Hester Collyer. I have seen The Deep Blue Sea twice and I will say straight away that I think it is a masterpiece. The test for this, in my view, is whether what is happening on stage still resonates with people living in a very different culture and time.

Watching Hester’s suffering unfold is familiar to anyone who has loved and lost, however and whenever it happened. That is great writing. Hester’s tragedy is that she “loves with her eyes open”. She has left her kind, well meaning, decent husband, a comfortable lifestyle and any chance of respectability behind for a chance of passion in a dingy bedsit with her ex spitfire pilot lover Freddy. She can see Freddy’s faults, she knows that he is unable to love her in the way that she needs him to, and it makes absolutely no difference. The conflict which this sets up within her leads to the failed suicide attempt which opens the play and precipitates the day of crisis which forms the plot.

Rattigan’s writing is all about subtext, what the characters don’t say, and this makes it far more challenging than it might seem to perform. You need to see the wheels of the characters inner life going round or you are in danger of being left with simply a beautifully crafted melodrama. Some of the minor characters in this production get lost in clipped vowel sounds and period detail and fall into this trap but the central performances more than make up for that. Maxine Peake is a wonderfully nuanced Hester, showing us the characters interior life and turmoil beneath her brittle exterior, and this makes her both engaging and sympathetic to watch. It is a performance full of life, energy and pent up emotion.

Lex Shrapnel is terrific as Freddy. The moment where he leaves a shilling for the gas meter to ensure that any future suicide attempt by Hester will not fail for lack of gas is one of the cruellest moments in modern drama and both times I have seen it you could hear a sharp intake of breath around the auditorium. What is so clever about Lex Shrapnel’s performance is that he also allows us to see the war damaged man behind the cruelty. Freddy’s life “stopped in 1940” and he is searching for a way to find the excitement and purpose that he had then, as time and too much alcohol dull his reactions and nerve. He simply can’t bear the fact that he is unable to give Hester what she needs and when he tells her that they are “death to each other” he means exactly what he says. The suicide attempt is the final straw for him. However much he wants to he knows that he can’t love Hester in the way that will make her happy and if both of them are to have a chance of survival, let alone happiness, it has to be apart. Without this insight into the character Freddy could be seen as merely a heartless young ne’er do well who drinks too much and couldn’t care less, which is far from the whole truth.

There is another fine performance from John Ramm as Hester’s husband William. It is never easy to play a character who is straightforwardly good, forgiving, decent and genuine, and he does this very well, allowing us to feel for him as he tries to find the answers that he needs from Hester and explain the end of his marriage. There are no answers of course. He has given Hester no reason to leave him but passion doesn’t respond to reason or common sense. Love is not always given where it is deserved and that is his tragedy.

The director Sarah Esdaile has a great feel for period and this informs the production throughout, and a fine understanding of the dialogue and the characters which the more experienced members of the cast have clearly fed off hungrily. I like her work very much. Her Death of a Salesman at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year was a great production and this is another very good one. The set is atmospheric and beautifully lit, a down at heel flat set in a ruined wasteland of charred sticks and broken golden cornicing which is a constant reminder of the wreckage that war leaves behind.

Not a pitch perfect production this one, but an intelligent and engaging account of a great play with the major aspects of Rattigan’s best work showing through strongly.

Death of a Salesman. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 29-05-10.

Death of a Salesman comes with baggage. It is generally agreed to be one of the greatest plays of the last century and it may even be the very best. This is a double edged sword for any company who take it on. This play is capable of great things, which means that you have wonderful material to work with, but at the same time you run the risk of letting it down. If you are not up to the challenge it will find you out. I need to be clear right away that this production is as good a production of this great play as you are ever likely to see. Everybody who was involved with it can be very proud of their achievement. I have seen plenty of high quality theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse over the years but I don’t think that I have ever seen a better production there.

Arthur Miller’s starting point when he wrote Death of a Salesman was a wish to show that tragedy doesn’t have to involve a fall from grace, in the way that the classical tradition of tragedy demands. The sufferings of Willy Loman, a flawed, self deluding and unsuccessful man who loses what little he had is just as moving as the downfall of any heroic figure and his story has a tragic dimension of its own. His wife Linda tells her sons in one of the key lines of the play “He is a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him, so attention must be paid.” This is the moral heart of the play.

Miller believed, rightly, that we all live in the past and the present simultaneously and this is what lies behind the structure of the play. He shows us what is happening inside Willy’s head alongside the present in order to explain and explore the reasons for his final breakdown. Characters and events from his past are as real to Willy as the events of the moment, and as his grasp on reality disintegrates we are slowly allowed to understand what has led him to the point where he is unable to carry on any more. It is a very poignant and clever structural device which makes the play fast moving and technically ground breaking for its time. The writing is clear as a bell, with heartfelt and naturalistic dialogue that manages to show us real people and their conflicts and sufferings as well as explore the human condition in a way that few playwrights have been able to do. Miller is able to write about human beings at the limit of their tolerance without ever descending into cliché and his grasp of human nature means that the heart of the play has hardly dated at all. We routinely describe great loss or suffering as tragic, but real tragedy can also come from a life like Willy’s; an energy sapping fight against quiet desperation and the relentlessness of everyday small sufferings and failures, the simple fight to put one foot in front of the other and carry on. This is the lot in life which many ordinary people have to face up to and in watching Willy and Linda’s struggle we can recognise our own humanity, flawed and inconsequential as it sometimes seems.

Phillip Jackson’s performance as Willy is at the centre of everything and he is magnificent. He shows us a man whose character provides little for us to admire, but as we are led into his world and he gains our sympathy we come to understand him, and forgive him. He is a stooped shambling figure, making believable the moments of honesty where he lets down his guard and is unable to keep up his self delusion, and he gives a performance of great truth. He is  deeply moving, particularly in the second half, as we see him spiral downwards, desperately trying to find support from those around him. He is the architect of his own downfall, Miller leaves us in no doubt about that, but not for one second do you ever feel that he is getting what he deserves. He shows us the whole man and nothing less is going to work if you play Willy Loman.

Marian Bailey is heartbreaking as Linda Loman. She stubbornly insists on her husband’s worth and defends him against her sons, never once blaming him for the troubles of the family. She is a rock, continuing to offer him solid practical and emotional support, even when he treats her badly and his behaviour becomes irrational. She has no illusions about him or her two sons, she knows them all too well and loves them in spite of their failings, never giving up hoping that one day they may do better. There are many women like Linda, stubbornly continuing to keep a family together in the face of hardship and the character of Linda is a tribute to them. It is her tragedy as much as it is his.

The other central relationship in the play is that between Willy and his oldest son Biff, played beautifully by Lex Shrapnel. Biff is a chip off the old block, a bum who wastes his chances in exactly the same way that his father has and whose early promise has come to nothing. As the play unfolds we see the responsibility which his father has to bear for this failure. He has projected his own ambitions onto his eldest son, leaving him no way to find his own path in life. It is only a partial responsibility- the Biffs of this world will always find someone to blame- but again we forgive Biff, however difficult to like he may sometimes be, as we come to understand him. He wants to do the right thing, but the right thing is always just beyond his reach. Arthur Miller described Death of a Salesman as a love story between a father and son and between them both and America and the great scene in the second half where this love is finally recognised and painfully hammered out between them is stunning. Phillip Jackson and Lex Shrapnel are electrifying and seeing them taking Miller’s dialogue by the scruff of the neck and feeding off each other, giving us the showdown that has been so long in coming, is as good as theatre gets. The hope at the end of the play is that Biff has finally come to know himself and can now make his way independently, but that’s all it is- a hope.

Happy, Willy’s other son, played confidently by Nick Barber, is a shallow womaniser, whose tragedy is very different. He will never amount to much because underneath his superficial charm and likeability there is little there. He simply doesn’t have it in him. He will get through life by swimming around in the shallows and avoiding anything that seems difficult, never allowing himself to admit that there may be more to discover. He is a very common type, offices and companies are full of them.

There are finely judged performances from all the actors playing the minor characters. They are helped by the fact that the look of the production is pitch perfect which allows them to register quickly and make the most of the time that they have. Whether they are trying unsuccessfully to help Willy, or taking a quiet delight in seeing him go down, each of them is a real living presence, not just a device to help us understand his collapse.

The director, Sarah Esdaile, has a passion for Arthur Miller’s work and my goodness it shows. She explains in the programme that it is quite hard for a freelance director to get their hands on a play like Death of a Salesman as artistic directors will invariably say that if they were going to do it they would want to direct it themselves. I am deeply grateful that she was given the chance. She is a major talent and her understanding of the play and the clarity of her judgment shines through everything. There is great attention to detail in the staging and everything is perfectly balanced. No moment is wasted or left unclear. In particular the ending is superb. The set is moved back and we see converging tram lines stretching back into the dark, empty space of the enormous Quarry theatre, an empty road which the characters have no choice but to continue down after Willy’s burial. To add this kind of theatrical bravura to Linda Loman’s heartrending final lament for her husband without losing the intense emotional focus on the personal suffering of the character is a real tribute to Miller’s writing, as I’m sure she would have wished.

The set design by Francis O’Connor is wonderful. The play makes very specific demands on the design in order to include the fast time shifts that are necessary so there is not much opportunity for innovation, but his design grounds the play perfectly in the 1940’s, with echoes of the original production, and allows it to sing. This sense of reality is important to the play as the audience needs to be clear where they are. There is some beautiful use of back projection which helps to clarify what is happening on stage and enhance it without ever overwhelming it.

I saw this production twice, only the fifth time that I have ever done that in over 30 years of going to the theatre. It is the third time that I have seen Death of a Salesman- it was one of the first plays that I ever saw at the old Leeds Playhouse when I was still at school- and I hope that it isn’t the last. The only problem that I am going to have next time I see it is that I will be wondering why it isn’t exactly like this one.

The photographs of the cast are production stills by Keith Pattison, copyright the West Yorkshire Playhouse, used by kind permission.