Belvoir Street, February 27, 2013
Tennessee Williams crafted two endings for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The original tied no loose ends and had no pat outcomes. The second, suggested by Elia Kazan (who directed the initial 1955 Broadway production), offered the audience reassuring rays of hope.
Thankfully Simon Stone’s production restores the playwright’s bleaker version, which compounds the potency and resonance.
Or it should. Stone’s other pivotal directorial decision was to use Australian rather than Mississippi accents, while leaving the slang and place names rooted in the South. In this case the South is more like Sylvania Waters. Such practices have become commonplace in our theatres, supposedly to allow contemporary audiences to “relate” to a work. In fact classics, by definition, exude universality, and to feel obliged to grease connections is to patronise audiences to a wretched degree..
The upshot here is that without any southern lilt the poetry in many lines is lost. This slight heightening of apparently naturalistic dialogue was among Williams’s finest achievements, reaching a musical, hypnotic quality in his writing for Big Daddy and Maggie.
But Cat is resilient. Its set-up of sexual frustration, alcoholism, guilt, greed, malice, lies, terminal cancer and misunderstood love – a typical extended-family birthday party! – is too strong.
The production also weathered having Marshall Napier bravely step in to play Big Daddy – patriarch, plantation magnate, birthday boy – three days before the first preview. Indeed Napier was still saddled with his script for slabs of the critical Act Two confrontation with Brick, his younger son, and some of Big Daddy’s deep likeability is still to be mined.
Ewen Leslie brings a convincing physical presence to Brick, the ex-athlete, ex-sports commentator, who, since the suicide of his particular friend, Skipper, props up the bourbon industry. Leslie misses the detachment his heavy drinking is supposed to afford, however. He is too quick to ignite, when ignition is exactly what his frustrated wife, Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) craves. McKenzie catches Maggie’s feline quality, but the character seems flimsy and vulgar without the sultry poeticism.
Lynette Curran wrings pathos from the put-upon, gauche, but ultimately lovable Big Mama, and generates the show’s most moving moments. Among the smaller roles Rebecca Massey realises Mae, the spiteful, grasping and prodigiously fertile wife of Brick’s brother, Gooper (Alan Dukes), although she fails to escape the slight but pervasive cartoon quality undermining the whole play’s intensity.
Designer Robert Cousins’ use of a revolve allows scrutiny of the characters from different angles as they confront each other, although more stillness in Act Three may have heightened the sense of dread as news of Big Daddy’s cancer strikes Big Mama to the marrow. Nonetheless the ending achieves something of its harrowing impact. Maggie, the only optimist still standing, is left clawing at Brick for a climax of her own.
Until April 21.