Leicester Curve – until 18 September 2021, then touring
The RTST’s Sir Peter Hall Director Award champions emerging directors tackling big plays for audiences around the country. Previous winners include Nancy Medina who directed a masterful production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate in 2019.
Back in January of last year, the current recipient Anthony Almeida featured in Curve’s season preview ahead of this revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). At the time, we wrote that he spoke eloquently about his affection of the play’s emotional setting and how he threw away any assumptions when reading it. Over 18 months later, on a hot September night, we finally got to see his production. Almeida’s fresh take on the play brilliantly evokes the heat and intensity of the Deep South setting.
Rosanna Vize’s design opens with a translucent gauze circling Brick and Maggie’s bedroom. The white curtain cools the heat of the room and hints at the wider plantation beyond the gallery doors. Brick and Maggie play much of their opening scene behind it and on opposite sides of it to each other, evocative of an emotional barrier between the two. If this offers a degree of protection to the heat of the Delta, it is soon ripped down in one of Brick’s drunken struggles, revealing the room, including its harsh red floor, as a confrontational space with nowhere for the characters to hide. Vize’s design is effective in its simplicity, and nicely synchronised with Almeida’s direction in that both are stripped of any fuss.
Williams plays with space in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The private sanctuary of the bedroom becomes a public arena for humiliation and personal confrontation of unwanted truths. Characters are in a constant struggle for privacy and breaking that privacy: whether that is Maggie locking the door only for Big Mama to come in, or Mae, Gooper and their five ‘no neck monsters’ trying to interrupt. In Almeida’s production, this is blasted open.
There are no walls meaning phone calls from the hallway take place centre stage and Big Mama stands over Brick from her first entrance. Everything is out in the open. This is no more apparent than in the scene where Big Daddy confronts Brick about his alcoholism and relationship with his friend Skipper. Whereas in the text, the gallery is an offstage place for eavesdropping, here the intruders are ever-present, watching their private conversation from the sides. As Big Daddy says, ‘It’s hard to talk in this place’.
It’s a fascinating play, a crucible of familial tensions and personal demons. It’s made more interesting by having two versions of Act Three. It’s my first time seeing the play, but I notice they’ve chosen the original Broadway version, different to the original version Williams wrote.
Almeida has made some other strong choices. Placing the interval at the height of Act Two allows him to build the tension again in the lead up and aftermath of Big Daddy’s exit in the second half. Imagining the final phone conversation between Brick and Skipper also gives us some more insight into what Skipper meant to Brick. Almeida also has an eye for detail for the peripheral characters, always watching from the side-lines. I particularly enjoyed Sam Alexander’s Gooper absent-mindedly tucking into Big Daddy’s birthday cake, candles still lit, as he stared into the distance struggling with the fact he’ll always be second best.
There are moments when Almeida’s direction reminds me of Ivo Van Hove’s treatment of the ‘classics’, most notably in the moment in Act Three when Big Daddy struggles, but is ultimately, undoubtedly, triumphant in lifting an upended table. This is reminiscent of the equally vivid ‘chair scene’, which was afforded new resonance in Van Hove’s 2014 production of A View from the Bridge. The scene echoes that production not only in its menacing tension, but is also evocative of Van Hove’s aesthetic focus on stark physicality off-set by an ethereal sense of purgatorial unease. This approach suits Williams’ play, where physical, mental and emotional boundaries are crossed and blurred in a space where there is literally nowhere to hide.
The production features some fine performances, led by Peter Forbes’ Big Daddy. He growls at Big Mama to be quiet and roams the stage like an older lion trying to keep control of his pack. The character provides much of the humour to the play but it’s often coarse or at the expense of someone else. In a way he feels like the keystone, all the other characters either fawning over him or playing in an unwinnable game of one-upmanship for his praise. That is all apart from Brick, searching for the ‘click’ in his head. Oliver Johnstone gives a physical performance as the faded football star. He’s often in a world of his own either hobbling around stage in search for his next drink or bouncing a balloon at the back of the stage. Rounding off the central performances, Siena Kelly is magnetic as a breathless Maggie, seductive yet malicious, headstrong yet desperate. Kelly manages to balance the many facets of the character while maintaining an odd, yet entirely believable purity of spirit. Kelly is most definitely a name to look out for.
Almeida has shown with this production that he has a bright future ahead, and in updating such a well-known play proves that there are still unplumbed depths in all the classic plays. In exposing the bare bones of the play, and placing the relationships at the fore, Almeida has created not only a highly entertaining piece of theatre, but a tableau of family life that can still resonate with modern audiences.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays at Leicester’s Curve until 18thSeptember, before touring to Liverpool Playhouse, Marlowe Theatre Canterbury, New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, Theatr Clwyd, and MAST Studios Southampton until 30thOctober.
Oliver Johnstone and Siena Kelly in Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Credit: Marc Brenner