Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - NT Live
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - NT Live
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Benedict Andrews
Cast: Sienna Miller, Jack O’Connell, Colm Meaney, Brian Gleeson, Richard Hansell, Lisa Palfrey, Michael J. Shannon, Hayley Squires
The Young Vic
NT Live at the Apollo Theatre London
22 February 2018
The plays of Tennessee Williams are so readily associated with the Mississippi region of the 1940s and 1950s, its heat and repressed passions spilling over into abuse, alcoholism and family dysfunction, as to seem pretty much inseparable from specific time and place. It's difficult to take the deep South out of a play like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where the tense family drama is intimately connected with the nature of the people of the land, the male/female dynamic, with family, inheritance and alcoholism. While none of those issues are specifically proprietary to the American south, without all of them would it still be Tennessee Williams?
The Young Vic's production, recorded live at the Apollo Theatre in London's West end for a National Theatre Live's cinema broadcast tests that idea to some extent. Sure, the phonetically written language and accents are a necessary part of the rhythm and tone of the work, so those elements remain intact, but Benedict Andrews's production shows that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof doesn't need the period detail, the verandas and heat, the while linen and lace, the slips and vests. The essentials are in the characters and the tense relationships between the members of Big Daddy's family in the Pollitt cotton plantation.
In an interview shown along with the NT Live broadcast, the Young Vic's outgoing artistic director David Lan, attempting to identify why the plays of Tennessee Williams retain their power after so many years, puts much of it down to the belief that Tennessee Williams doesn't write so much characters as relationships, but I don't think it's as simple as that. The ensemble is certainly important in this Williams play - perhaps even more than any of his other great works - but by the same token every single character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to be credible in their motivations. There's a lot of stark truths revealed about the playwright, his background and his own personality in the play, and every other character has to be credible in order for the truth of it to stand out.
Depending on how you look at them, the themes of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof can be seen as being fairly broad or they can be seen as dealing with big issues: Sex, Family and Death. And by the same token - as themes that run through all Williams's plays - they can risk run towards caricature in that overheated glasshouse atmosphere that seems tied to that specific time and place. The fact that they don't in the Young Vic is down to casting and performance, and it's in that aspect - as much through strong direction - that Benedict Andrews shows that William's themes are still powerful and enduring, relevant to how people and families continue to behave today.
And when inheritance becomes an issue, well the gloves are off, and that's not just an issue that affects the deep South, although when there are 20,000 acres of rich plantation land involved, you can imagine that it might just be that there might be sharp claws beneath those gloves. So when Maggie complains that her husband Brick hasn't planted his seed in her belly, it's more than just that she is itching for it like a cat on a hot tin roof, or that she has to put up with constant jibes from her outrageously fertile sister-in-law Mae and her five - soon to be six - "no-neck monsters". Everyone knows that Big Daddy has a terminal illness - everyone but Big Daddy and Big Mama that is - and that he won't be around to look after the estate much longer. Despite not having written a will, and despite Mae's husband Gooper being the eldest son, Brick is Big Daddy's favourite, but the much gossiped fact that he won't even sleep with his wife - and the underlying reasons for it and Brick's alcoholism - makes it unlikely that he and Maggie will be in a position to keep the family line going.
Now, if those aren't characters, I don't know what they are, but admittedly, they have the potential to be seen as fairly broadly drawn and can indeed be played like that. There are no shrinking violets here and every one of them is prepared to tell you exactly what they think, except perhaps Brick, who has something he doesn't want to think about and just wants to drink instead. Drink a lot. Drink himself into oblivion. You put them together however and you have an explosive situation, particularly in the ripe and salty language that Williams puts in their mouths. That's part of the attraction of Tennessee Williams, and you don't want to lose either the viciousness of the barbs, nor the drawl in which they are delivered. The rest of it ...well, that's up for grabs, particularly if you have a good cast to work with.
I don't know about Tennessee Williams writing 'characters' or not but there is plenty of room for actors to bring them to life. The relationships between them however are certainly the domain of the director, who has to know how much each of the figures can dominate and express themselves. Some might be inclined to give the emphasis to the starring roles of Maggie and Brick, and Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell indeed give truly mesmerising, can't-take-your-eyes-off-them performances. The drunk Brick is naked from the start, sprawled under a shower and Jack O'Connell spends much of the rest of the play with only a scanty towel wrapped around him. Andrews also knows how important it is for Maggie to be in a state of heightened sexual arousal and frustration and the constant removal of layers of clothing to reveal Sienna Miller completely naked by the end of the play is hardly gratuitous given the context.
As utterly rivetting the delivery and performances are from these two, they still don't steal the show from the person who really should be the 'biggest' presence in the play and that is Big Daddy. Colm Meaney is outstanding, never crassly overplaying, but rather showing the blunt and loud nature of a man who is used to saying what he thinks and doing what he likes. And as such, believing himself all-powerful, invulnerable and damn-near immortal. If he is surprisingly tolerant about the revelations of Brick's relationship with Skipper, it's just that he is convinced that there's time to make Brick the man he wants him to be. When he finds out that time isn't on his side, Big Daddy's roar is one of frustration, disbelief and maybe even defiance as much as its the flaring up of the pain caused by his cancer.
So, my God yes, there are characters here in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it's true also that the ensemble and the relationships between them are just as important and it's a real test of the director to bring that all together. Benedict Andrews makes the most of a terrifically capable cast in the Young Vic's production. Lisa Palfrey is hugely entertaining as Big Mama, another character that skirts caricature through her complete sincerity, and having only seen Hayley Squires deliver in a London working-class accent, I was very impressed with her southern States accent and deliciously catty performance as Mae. Brian Gleeson too made a great impression of a man deluded in his self-importance who is in reality inadequate in every other field than the fathering of a brood of children.
Not that this is a negligible matter in the Pollitt family in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and in fact, it's probably a more important matter than setting the play in a specific period with all the decorative trappings. This was no minimalist Ivo van Hove production design however, Magda Willi's providing rather an all-purpose set that struck a good balance between contemporary realism with the furnishings and an abstract gold-panelled wall at the back of the stage, a kind of hot tin roof that dispensed with the scorching heat of the Mississippi Delta and instead reflected inward the more than sufficient heat that was being generated up there on the stage.