Director James Dacre, speaking to me as his version of Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was just about to set out on its tour of Northampton’s Royal & Derngate, Newcastle’s Live Theatre and, now, the Royal Exchange in Manchester, acknowledged that some 50s American drama “has historically become a slightly sentimentalised picture of a bygone time, probably with a great big old-fashioned set littered with props”.
The challenge facing his production, then, was “to create a piece of work that is both set in its period and able to evoke a very seductive and powerful picture of the American South, but also able to speak very directly to audiences about the social and political themes that were so active in the 50s as well as about human emotions that continue into the 21st Century – themes of loneliness, of family life, of the difficulty of communication, of mendacity, and of what it means to live within a close-knit community”.
Certainly the “great big set littered with props” is mercifully absent from this production, replaced by Mike Britton’s set of unused bed, louvre blinds, stripped floors and, of course, a drinks cabinet, all in stark white, save for the huge sparkling chandelier hanging between the, rather inevitable, ceiling fans. This certainly complements the emotional chilliness of the characters – to the extent that I heard more than one audience member comment that it “looked just like a designer hotel room” – but it does, on the other hand, rather belie the constant references to the stifling heat. Nor does Dacre’s musical collaboration with post-punk band White Lies, despite his avowed enthusiasm “to ensure that there’s a greater dialogue between the musical arts and the theatrical arts,” seem to add much to the mix as it’s mostly so soft as to be almost subliminal.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other so far then. Which brings us to the material itself and the performers.
Fuelled by drinking, desire and deceit (hurray to all that), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was written on the eve of the sexual and civil rights revolution in America. Williams himself, albeit under duress, claims that, of all his work, it might be his personal favourite in that it “comes closest to being both a work of art and a work of craft”. Originally produced on Broadway, where, like much of Williams’s later work, it enjoyed a successful run, there has long been some dispute over the precise extent to which premiere director Elia Kazan tinkered with Williams’s original ending and concept. This confusion wasn’t helped by Williams’s own apparent ambivalence, so much so in fact that, when he published the play text in 1955, he actually took the decision to print both endings alongside one another, allegedly so that any reader might “make up his own mind”. Dacre, wisely in my view, has opted to go with Williams’s original, rather oblique ending; something of a calm after the emotional storm that precedes it but certainly not one which wraps everything up neatly ever after.
It’s been a long time, I admit, since I’d seen or read the play and I’d rather forgotten how it ebbs and flows, how one confrontation (and there are many at this most dysfunctional of family gatherings) seems to peak and then it’s almost as if a collective breath is being taken before we build up to another. Thus characters are rather artificially shuffled on and off stage, although Williams was mostly contemptuous of tedious realism. Instead he was, in a typically precise stage direction, “trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people…in the thundercloud of a common crisis”. Everything, he believed, “has to be concentrated, intensified” and characters be “larger than life”.
Perhaps none of Williams’s characters fits that description better than Big Daddy, impressively played here by Daragh O’Malley. Like some sort of barely-domesticated wild animal, he’s potent, unpredictable and perilous. As his family gathers around him, ostensibly to celebrate his 65th birthday, pent-up emotions of jealousy, regret, desire, desperation and avarice bleed out of each of them. It’s not a pretty sight but a horribly compelling one.
Or at least it should be. One of the issues with this production is the unevenness of the characterisations. Grasping Gooper (Matthew Douglas), so colourless it’s hard to imagine he’s Big Daddy’s son (and it’s hinted, entirely in passing, he might not be), and his ghastly wife Mae (Victoria Elliott) come over as lifeless and stereotypical schemers, while the likes of Dr Baugh (Kieron Jecchinis) and Reverend Tooker (Sean Murray) simply seem like the chairs on stage – useful now and again but not very.
It’s the unused bed which dominates the stage, though, symbolic of the sexless relationship between Big Daddy’s favoured son Brick (Charles Aitken) and his frustrated, desperate wife Maggie (Mariah Gale). By her own reckoning, she’s the titular cat on a hot tin roof and it’s the unhappy relationship between her and Brick that drives much of the first act of this Deep South family drama. At least Brick has alcohol to hide behind, every bit as much of a crutch as the literal one that, when he’s not hopping around on it, he occasionally uses to try to bash her brains in. Or does he? He could probably get away with it if he really tried, after all. As she says, “I’m not living with you, we occupy the same cage,” but it’s a pretty gilded one and maybe neither of them really wants to live outside of it. As in life, the reasons for their unhappiness are never really revealed or explained, but the question of his latent homosexuality is explicitly raised. Williams, gay himself, has described him as “the living sacrifice, the victim, of the play”, even suggesting that his paralysis gives him a “tragic elegance”.
Whether you subscribe to all this high anxiety or not depends to a great extent on the strength of the performances. I found myself more forgiving of Gale’s somewhat shrill performance than others I’ve spoken to about it and thought Aitken struck pretty much the right note of arrogance tempered with vulnerability and fear. Kim Criswell’s Big Mama, though, was just too big, looking with her great big hair and glasses more as if she’d wandered in from a nearby production of Hairspray. Given they’ve been on the road with this production for a couple of months now, none of the problems could reasonably be put down to first night jitters either, which makes the show, despite its many commendable qualities, something of a disappointment.
Images by Jonathan Keenan
Where: Royal Exchange, Manchester
When: until November 29, 2014
More info: www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof
To see a clip of the classic 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, click here