Noel Coward Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
Tennessee Williams knew how to write about society’s underbelly. In The Night of the Iguana he throws together a disparate group of Life’s rejects just to see what happens.
The result is, yet again, the creation of a truly memorable female role quite unlike his other flawed and vulnerable women. He comes up with a mild-mannered protagonist whose inner strength, faith and optimism can fight anything Life throws at it.
Iguana, now running at the Noël Coward Theatre, sees the return of Clive Owen to the London stage after 18 years. But his turn, as disgraced minister, the Rev T Lawrence Shannon, is overshadowed by the barnstorming performance of Lia Williams who astonishes as stoic Nantucket spinster, Hannah Jelkes.
While Owen’s shambling, alcoholic and mentally unstable preacher-turned-tour-guide, is the louder, showier part, it’s Williams’ quiet dignity and glorious, languid accent as the artist, hustler and nomadic carer, Jelkes, that is utterly enthralling.
The production itself is overlong and rather uneven, entirely due to its writer rather than anything director James Macdonald does. Williams throws in a ridiculous comedy German family who, instead of providing light relief to combat the drama’s solemn intensity, simply come across as xenophobic and unnecessary.
And the plot is best not scrutinised too closely otherwise you may question the story’s set-up not to mention Shannon’s remarkable ability to bounce back from a mental breakdown.
The action takes place in what appears to be the arsehole of civilisation, on the eve of a tropical storm. It’s September 1940 at the down-at-heel, Costa Verde Hotel, on the West Coast of Mexico, and a tour bus of ‘Baptist old maids’ has pulled up.
Shannon, claiming fever, but looking intoxicated, is refusing to carry on with the tour until he rests – much to the disgust of his prim party (which includes a 16-year-old girl he’s already availed himself of). It’s the off-season and wisecracking hotel owner, recent widow, and friend, Maxine (Anna Gunn), doesn’t want the hassle. Worse follows when a woman and her ageing grandfather turn up looking for accommodation. Maxine finds that she can’t turn any of them out into the approaching storm.
Hannah, accompanying her Nonno (Julian Glover) – apparently the oldest living poet in the world – are destitute and make a living hustling from place to place, living on their wits to provide food and accommodation.
Shannon has hopes of returning to the church but probably has a statutory rape charge hanging over him; Nonno is determined to finish his last (middling) poem before he dies; and Hannah, just wants to sell a painting to survive.
She has one great speech when she reveals to Shannon the details of her only two sexual encounters and Lia Williams is mesmeric.
The audience hangs on every word of the story. It is bitterly painful and tragic but told unemotionally and without regret or disgust by the eminently pragmatic Jelkes.
Clive Owen’s sweat-stained Shannon has a hard time of it, lurching from drunk, to unbalanced, to raving and feverishly delusional – with pitstops along the way to reveal a fondness for pubescent girls, violence, fire and brimstone.
About halfway through the erratic, lapsed preacher loses the plot completely and faces being returned to an asylum – yet moments later he’s perfectly lucid and coherent.
Make of that what you will.
But Shannon and Jelkes form an unlikely friendship, despite the fact that minister’s emotional instability is in total contrast to the incredible strength of character, composure and resilience of the genteel spinster.
The Night of the Iguana takes three hours to tell a fairly simple story which could be done in 30 minutes. It’s overly padded and flabby in places.
But it is worth the price of a ticket simply to watch Lia Williams deliver an outstanding performance as one of Tennessee Williams’ great, but unsung, female characters.
The Night of the Iguana runs at the Noël Coward Theatre until September 28.
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