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.
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.