Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ~ theatre notes

Friday, August 15, 2008

Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, directed by Gale Edwards. Set and costumes by Stephen Curtis, lighting design by Matt Scott, music composed by Paul Grabowsky. With Essie Davis, Martin Henderson, Rebekah Stone, Deidre Rubenstein, Chris Haywood, Gary Files, Grant Piro and Terry Norris. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre until September 13. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

“Personal lyricism,” said Tennessee Williams, “is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life.”

It’s a statement that encapsulates the urgency that underlies this playwright’s work, the consuming loneliness which drives its passions. His plays pierce the tragic nature of human consciousness, the awareness which at once makes us understand that we will die and confines us in the solitude of our skulls.

“Ignorance of mortality is a comfort,” says Big Daddy (Chris Haywood) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “A man doesn’t have that comfort, he’s the only living thing that conceives of death… a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it…”

This dance between death and silence on the one hand, and desperate outcry, the animal “squeal”, on the other, is the engine of Williams’s great tragedy. Each character in this desperately dysfunctional family is wounded, and it makes each of them cruel.

And each of them talks all the time, a constant babble of words which only reveals a profound inability to communicate. “Communication,” says character after character, “is awful hard between people…”

Language here is a miasma of deception, a weaving of plots and counter-plots as different family members compete for a place in Big Daddy’s will. But, as Williams makes clear, this ruthless greed stems from emotional lack: money is what they seek instead of love.

Director Gale Edwards has chosen to stage Williams’s original play, rather than the slightly less bleak version he wrote for Elia Kazan’s Broadway premiere. It’s a decision that pays off: this is a compelling and powerful production which never shies from Williams’s histrionic excesses or unrelenting cruelties.

Stephen Curtis’s gorgeous set is dominated by a huge bed with a mosquito net which reaches up into the flies, an ironically lush symbol of the play’s variously barren marriages.

Like the set, the performances are heightened, bringing this domestic drama into the arena of classical tragedy. Essie Davis is a magnificent Maggie, at once brittle and tough and vulnerable, and is ably met by Martin Henderson as Brick. And Deidre Rubenstein’s performance of Big Mama is extraordinary: in the final act, her face becomes a tragic mask.

There are quibbles, like Chris Haywood’s wavering accent or a relatively unimaginative sound design. But they remain quibbles. This production picks up Williams’s theatrical poetry and writes it large, in all its painful and mercilessly vital beauty.

Picture: Essie Davis in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photo: Justin McManus

This review appears in today's Australian. There is much more to say about both Williams and the production, but I have to go to Warrnambool this morning on the Author Track and I don't have the time to rewrite the review.


Geoffrey said...

Here's me with my still full cup of tea, made to drink while reading this highly anticipated review. Good luck on the "Author Track" ... and I hope you have the time in the not too distant future to revisit your thoughts about Tennessee Williams. I'd love to read them.

Alison Croggon said...

Many apologies, Geoffrey! This is a fine production and wholly recommended - see it if you can. I think it's a wonderful realisation of Williams. One of those plays where, when it finished, I suddenly sagged with exhaustion; it held my complete attention all the way through in ways I hadn't been conscious of.

Anonymous said...

Alison--I saw a preview of this and it left much to be desired. I can only assume that, as often happens, it grew exponentially during previews. When I saw it Essie Davis was essentially working alone, Gale Edwards just didn't seem to have taken the production to where it was ready for an audience. I'll try to get back before it closes.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, I hope they don't do an All My Sons and sag after opening night... almost everyone I spoke to who wasn't at the Miller on opening night had all sorts of problems - but those there on opening night loved it. So much depends on the energy of the performance on the night. I have to say, this felt very fingers crossed.

Anonymous said...

I saw this production and all I can say is thank God the ticket was a freebie. It was, frankly, appalling. The acting was solid pine, the set was a hopeless cliche and the idea that Australian actors can accurately portray deep Southern accents only led to unintentional comedy.
Steamy evocations of sexual tension and mendacity? You're having a laugh.

Alison Croggon said...

Nope, I wasn't having a laugh; I'm always painfully sincere in all my responses. I'm not a complete fool, and I really liked it. What I saw on opening night was a straight up production of a great play. There were things that could have been better, sure; Chris Haywood's accent was excruciating, there were a few wooden performances around the edges, the sound design was, well, obvious... But the feeling, the most important aspect for me, was all there. I'll be really sorry if that has vanished.

Alison Croggon said...

Thinking further on this, after a conversation last night with another punter who loathed this play. I can only speak for the production I saw; but what I'm beginning to wonder is if the objections might be to the play itself, rather than to the production. I'm hard put, for instance, to see how the set was a "cliche": it hews pretty closely to TW's stage directions, in that every object needed is there, but is theatrically stylised so it isn't a naturalistic set. But if you're going to "do the play", can you do it without the doors opening to an outside verandah, or the huge drinks cabinet? Or without that sense of wealth on stage? And there were touches like the outrageously excessive makeup on the women, which made their faces into grotesque masks. What I would fault is the sound design, which only cranked up when the dialogue demanded it, rather than being a texture that informed the performances...

The person I spoke to last night complained about all the screeching women: and yet the screeching women are what TW wrote, all that noise over the abyss. And said that the play was "dated", whereas I was watching it thinking how contemporary it all still seems, even though it is so clearly of its time. What I admired principally was how unrelenting the production was: it started at a high pitch and never let up. The scenes that were cruel were very cruel indeed, the voices of the women were like nails on a blackboard... (Did I ever talk, btw, about "steamy evocations?") TW is not a comfortable playwright, he writes about cruel and ugly things, and the production I saw didn't flinch from that painfulness. Is it that people want something a little easier to digest, a little less unpleasant? Or is it that this kind of heightened theatricality itself makes people uncomfortable? TW himself talks about his "histrionics", he makes no bones about it. And this production picked up this cue and went for it.

It's not a Daniel Schlusser production (though I wouldn't mind seeing what he would do with TW). I am all for straight and vital productions of brilliant plays; there has to be a place for that in the continuum of theatre. The MTC is the company to do them, and they ought to do them well, as I think they did here. But a horrible thought has struck me: is it that, after a few decades of mainstream theatre that is basically Williamson or west end hits or soft-focus classics, maybe people like the idea of the "play" rather more than the reality?

Anonymous said...

Have you ever see a Gale Edwards production where the actors were NOT driven to start at a high pitch and then never let up? Subtlety and nuance are strangers to her. I think it far more likely people are repelled by that, rather than Williams' words.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, I haven't always been an Edwards fan. My point is that I thought this energy (which was not without its subtleties, let's be fair) wholly appropriate for this play.

Chris Boyd said...

Have you ever see a Gale Edwards production where the actors were NOT driven to start at a high pitch and then never let up?

Yep. How about David Hare's Racing Demon, a play about the split in the Anglican church? Lots of scope for shouting there! Heh.

It rates as one of the subtlest and most absorbing mainstage theatre productions I've seen. (You know what, it even had the trademark GE revolve!)

When she's on her game, she's still one of this country's very best directors.

Anonymous said...

when it finished, I suddenly sagged with exhaustion

I felt the same way but for entirely different reasons.

I was left feeling deflated - that a $70+ ticket to an MTC production left me feeling like I had seen a provincial amateur company being given a go in the big city... and failing.

I'm not a regular theatre goer and I'm not sure whether I just don't like Tennessee Williams' style but after last night I do know the importance of basics like getting accents right or having actors keep acting when they're out of the limelight.

If I hadn't been there with my (more generous) girlfriend I would have left at intermission.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)