Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 6 July 2019
Savagely observed absurdity, blinding flashes of insight, profound yearning, sudden poetry singing clear notes from the cruel swamp of humanity. This isn’t one of Tennessee Williams’ more familiar plays, but it has all the troubled master’s marks, glories and challenges.
Though wisely, director Tamara Harvey of Theatre Clwyd makes no attempt to fulfil the author’s demand for the dying invalid to burn a hole through the ceiling; and intelligently, rather than clutter the set realistically, she uses the striking, noble figure of Uncle Pleasant on the sidelines to speak some of Williams’ evocatively vivid stage descriptions. The result is a riveting, disturbing and memorable evening.
The play starts deliberately slow, casual, as women gossip in a small-town store strike all the deep-South notes: religious hypocrisy and mania, bullying male rednecks locked in prejudice, and fascinated local disapproval of the local wild-girl Carol Curtrere: a superb Jemima Rooper, voguing around in shabby leopardprint. She is doubly disreputable for her sexual freedoms and for having been a civil rights campaigner arrested as a “lewd vagrant”. She is paid an allowance by her family to stay out of Two Rivers County, an undertaking frequently broken. In one of those sudden poetic lines, attempting to lure the visiting Orpheus, she says that up in the cemetery the dead talk to one another all night – and what they say is “Live! Live!” Hairs bristle on the back of your neck.
This long slow-moving opening teaches us many things: that the shop’s owner Jabe Torrance is being brought back from Memphis after a serious operation, that his wife Lady has run and improved the business, and that her father was a “wop” Italian immigrant who ran a lively drinking-joint for the less church-minded locals. But who also, having made the mistake of selling liquor to black people, was burned out of his property by Klansmen and died in the flames. This left Lady destitute so as Catrin Aaron’s bossy Beaulah puts it – “Jabe Torrance bought that woman, and he bought her cheap”.
Thus the town itself is a key character, a vital protagonist before the principals arrive from Memphis, Jabe with “the sweat of death on him”. Lady is efficient but not fond, brisk and chilly and cleverer than the rest, standing apart. Into this little world descends the Orphean Val, with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar signed by Fats Waller and Bessie Smith, wanting to give up wandering and seducing for a quieter life. After some sparring, and more strange, Williams fantasy speeches, he gets a job in Lady’s store.
From that moment Seth Numrich as Val and Hattie Morahan as Lady hold the stage, control the tension, drive the terrifying thrill-ride to disaster,. The way their relationship develops is slow, chippy, credible and fascinating: they haven’t laid a finger on each other for the first two acts before the interval . Morahan is miraculously real in her stiff, damaged endurance (for which we learn more reasons later). She is not looking for cheap romance as she snaps exasperatedly “Everything you do is suggestive” . Numrich evokes all the puzzling, youthful ambiguity of the reforming drifter – “I have lived in corruption but I am not corrupt”, and sings strange, mythic, otherworldly murmured songs about his feet on the grass of heaven. When the moment comes that they finally kiss, movingly it is he who is overcome by the reality of it.
Too deep involved, too sorrowful for the trapped lives, you long for this pair to make a break for it, assert their free wildness and get out of this hellish place (Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott, with his increasingly nutty visionary wife, ramps up the menace beautifully). You are rapt until the last terrible moments. Uncle Pleasant looks on, steady in his exclusion from this fearful Southern-white world, and wild Carol comes back to claim the snakeskin jacket with the remarkable line about the roaming free creatures, the “fugitive kind” who perish but whose white bones and skins show the rest of us the way. Stunning, strange, unforgettable.
box office menierchocolatefactory.com 020 7378 1713 to 6 July