Noel Coward Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
You can feel the heat in Rae Smith’s design, Mexican sun on the rock overhead, and the corrugated iron roofs of the rundown hotel. Somewhere below the cliffside verandah an invisible tour-bus hoots impatiently for its leader, as the disgraced Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon yells down to his rebellious Baptist ladies that they are staying on here and to hell with the schedule as per brochure.
Clive Owen is Shannon, returning to the London stage with no inconsiderable triumph, a masterfully crumpled white suit and a positively demonic level of energy. This pastor, fresh out of the Casa Locos asylum with a breakdown, struggles to reconcile life’s brochure – schedules (and conventional theology and behaviour) with the vague truth of something beyond. Unfortunately the something has most recently materialised as statutory rape of a very eager 16-year- old. His altercation with a magnificently harsh and furious Finty Williams as the girl’s duenna is watched with lustful amusement by Anna Gunn as Maxine, the exuberantly décolletée newly-widowed scruff who runs the hotel.
Into the mix appear more strangers: the travelling watercolourist and sketch peddler Hannah, and her 97-year-old grandfather Nonno “the world’s oldest practising poet”. In the play’s last moments he will at last speak his final poem, evoking the fall and rot of fruit, “the earth’s obscene, corrupting love”.
My hard-hearted young colleague Luke Jones has observed that you know you’re watching Tennessee Williams if “everyone talks like a teenage poet”. But then, Williams himself quoted an accusation that he had only “ the uncontrolled emotionalism of a minor lyric talent totally unsuited to the stage of life as well as the theatre”. But if you love him no emotional overkill or slo-mo breakdown will be too much.
I think this is a tremendous play, perhaps without the explosive excitements of Streetcar or the simpler poignancy of the Glass Menagerie, but distilled Williams, groping for meaning. Nor does director James Macdonald jib at letting it tip gruellingly over the three hour mark. I staggered out, properly overwhelmed but thrilled to have been there. Williams has much to say about degradation, breakdown, innocence, guilt, God, sex, pain, wild nature and loneliness.
His gift is as ever to say it all through characters who are flawed to the point of being reprehensible, yet inspire irresistible love and empathy. Indeed the only atypical thing about this play is the intermittent and very funny invasions of the verandah by four rowdy Germans in naff beachwear, singing Nazi Marching songs and jeering that London is burning. They do not inspire love at all, but are chucked in there simply because the author is remembering his own depressed exile in 1940, in just such a tropical flophouse where triumphalist German revellers were indeed part of the scenery. Life’s patchwork absurdity need not always be simplified for a tidy stage.
The central performances are judged to a hair: Gunn’s Maxine is endearingly managerial and sometimes on the edge of cruelty, but emotionally and sexually needy and seeing Shannon’s loneliness through his terrible behaviour. He is God-hungry and sinful, ranting at the deity as a “senile delinquent”, struggling back into his clerical collar or ripping off his gold cross and chain. Guilty, mother-haunted, fleeing and needing women and haunted by his “spook” depression he stands in the tradition of Greene’s whisky-priest or Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte.
Owen gives a wonderfully physical performance , crazedly vigorous in the crackup which has him literally tied down to the hammock, but stilling gradually under the influence of the other key to the play’s troubled heart: the straight-backed Lia Williams as the oddball artist, “a New England spinster and not young”. With her gold choirboy crop and precise calm endurance she is a still cool flame of generous chastity. Both do justice to the wild lush text, rich in wonder and filth, corruption and beauty. It tells us only to endure, and grow as old as Nonno so we can speak our poem before we go.
box office 0844 482 5151 delfontmackintosh.co.uk to 28 Sept