Wednesday, May 8, 2019
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presents CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, by Tennessee Williams, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. 3rd May -
Part way through Act One of the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Tennessee Williams, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, Directed by Kip Williams (and it was probably only twenty minutes or so into the text), I knew that I was having an experience in the theatre that was what I recognise as an experience of Grand Theatre. Watching this production of Kip Williams was the equivalent to me of what I have often experienced in the three hour or more in a Wagner Opera experience - a "Grand Olde Opry" experience, one that through its writing and the endurance of its time spread, was going to lift me to the upper echelons of exposed truths that would both burn my soul and still elate me to the joy of being witness of one man's genius in his distilled and earnest learnt vision of what it is to be human. A gift of earned insight seared from his pain for us as a gift to guide us through our own travails.
This production had the handle on the possibility of the writing and relished the words of Mr Williams' labour. This was what some would call Grand Old Fashioned Theatre. The play is written as one continuous act and is in 'real' time: three and a quarter hours long. I was witness to the huge scale of Tennessee Williams' conception. This play revealed itself as a Masterpiece and put into contextual shadow most of what we see on our stages in Sydney, as contemporary writing that in imaginative context and theme is in comparison banal, pygmy, empty, shallow. When did a new play, especially an Australian play, tell us that we were to deal with notions of existential DISGUST? MENDACITY? LIES? LIARS? GREED? Issues of our present day. Not for a long time in my experience. Let us not dwell too much on the mastery of language usage and character conception and realisation, and daring of the dramaturgical structure of each of the three acts of the play, for it is painful to know what we do not have enough of when we go to the theatre here.
Now, what I am raving about is the Play not the Production, for this production is flawed tremendously, with the ego of the Director, Kip Williams, though, relatively, it is surprisingly restrained in the exhibition of his usual 'tropes' to reveal to us his needs to make us aware that he is in charge of what we should appreciate. He signals with Sound Composition and Design (Stefan Gregory) and Lighting Design (Nick Schlieper) to intrude on the subtleties of Tennessee Williams' writing, and his confidence in our, the audience's, intelligence. It is gross overstatement of effort, over and over again, indulged with volume of noise and a huge wall of blaring light.
The Sound and Lighting being the most intrusive affect, for there are also visual missteps from the first reveal of the Set (David Fleischer), that despite the careful notes from Tennessee Williams in the text, is the Director's decision to set the play in 2019, which looks, in result, in the considered conversations of solution with the Director and Designer, like a high fashion furniture shop display room, with pieces of expensive (minimalist) bedroom furniture marooned in a vast landscape of blackness that has no walls or doors, a huge warehouse show room (one looked for the price tags). Black, white and grey - reflected in mirrors many a time - having a colour dominant 'coolness' with no suggestion of the humidity of this plantation, one of the finest in the South, with all of its fecund growth surrounding it, no humidity of the sexual tension in this bedroom. The logic of the gradual disappearance of elements of the objects of design throughout the three acts, during the night into the darkness, seems to be unfathomable except as design mistakes or shallow thinking with a necessity to get rid of it (which the actors stage-managed throughout this naturalistic play, along with their other duties which involved acting!). The bed, Brick and Maggie's bed, in this design is a flimsy piece in a contemporary minimalist scale without any of the deliberate symbolism of the ghosts of the houses' history permeating - no memory of Jack and Peter, the two old maids that once owned this bed, this estate, no Simon Schama (Tennessee Williams) Ghosts haunting this room or place.
And lets not dwell on the awful visuals of most of the costuming (Mel Page), especially of the women. (The men all get away with a look of reality and function).What was Mae (Nikki Shields) wearing? What of some of Magige's wardrobe of dresses that she paraded before us? - (oh horror, horror, horror). And the 'sausage skin', white tube, full length dress that Big Mama (Pamela Rabe) wore was a shocker of some note.
The long first act 'aria' that Maggie gives in Act One is full of daring physical choices from Zahra Newman. It is stuffed with the high energy aggression of a musical comedy inclination of dance choreography. Ms Newman, perhaps, taking a cue from her introduction engineered by the Director, by giving a 'campy' torch-song rendition of some of CRY ME A RIVER to introduce Maggie - for a moment I thought we were in for a cabaret version of the play! It is an astonishing performance but it lacks any, or most, of the tactics of the Maggie written on the page. It lacked the desperation of a worn-out woman trying to secure her future, her old age security, from a man she knows is not interested and is past care. This Maggie was a childish elf seeking attention relentlessly. It is not completely fair, but my memory of Kathleen Turner and the tremendous grief and fear of a woman that motivated her actions was completely absent from this performance and the memory of the Wendy Hughes sexual heat with her Brick, John Hargreaves, was not apparent. Energy galore, outrageous choice galore but little to no close reading of the text. It seemed to me a performance indulged by the Director.
Harry Greenwood, playing Brick, does not look as if he was ever an athlete and a figure of desire - a kind of god - his body looks clapped out and seems not to have any memory of the taut hurdler on the athletic field that we are lamenting. Mr Greenwood's theatrical intelligence is a kind of compensation and gives his all, but he seems to be way out of his emotional depth in securing the self laceration of a man that hates himself, that cannot face the possibility of his truth - his homophobic internalisation of his greatest fear. He fares much better in the second act when faced with the fierce heat and energy of Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy, for there is a spark of contact, a pain of history present between them that does not really reveal itself in the work with Ms Newman in the first Act.
Hugo Weaving is the other reason to see this production - he is, quite simply, magnificent. And the intrusive hand of Kip Williams which was so evident in their last collaboration: THE RESISTABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI, with his cameras, is absent from this production and allows us to enjoy every gesture of offer of this great artist, unimpeded with film editorial direction. We are not forced to choose of where to look.
Pamela Rabe, in the above mentioned costume, adds to her gallery of entertaining grotesques (read my blog on DANCE OF DEATH), in her decisions in creating Big Mama. Lumpy and bent-over, wig almost askew with a flourished handkerchief Ms Rabe wrinkles as much laughter as she can squeeze from the opportunities Tennessee gives her. It is a highly appreciated performance - some of the audience finding it hilarious. Its only competition in the laughter stakes is in the delicate and wise offers by Peter Carroll in the tiny role of the bewildered, limited churchman, Reverend Tooker. Ms Rabe could learn by watching the understatement of Mr Carroll in securing his laugh rewards with the role.
Nikki Shields, as Mae, despite the costume, and Josh McConville as her husband Gooper, succeed, in the third act, to make these two characters almost human and maybe motivated from 'good' and decent ideas. They give interrogated performances - then, they nearly always do.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at the STC, worth catching. Read my blog of the Belvoir production to read my analysis of the play and my 'beef' about these auteurs of Sydney. The best thing about this production is that the love that the Director espouses for the Writer, in his program notes, allows the play to breathe at its own value. GRAND OLD THEATRE, the like of which one thirsts for in Sydney, and is happy to appreciate even in this flawed effort.
The writer is indeed GOD.
This production of the play uses the first published version of the text.