When a small but influential herd of neocon critics sallied forth to wag fingers at Simon Stone for having the temerity to tamper with Arthur Miller’s sacred text, Death Of A Salesman, I piped-up to tell anyone who’d listen I though he’d improved it. With that play, Stone wrestled with a classic and came out the victor.
The same can’t be said of his effort with Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, a class act of equal standing. Of course, on this occasion, I may betray some apparent conservatism of my own, as this staging rocked my world like a series of detonations.
The first, in-my-face explosion was Robert Cousins set, which amounts to a lazy susan stage and a Technicolor drape of streamers. Admittedly, said streamers serve to create a palpable atmosphere of anxiety; even paranoia. Who’s watching? Who’s listening? Even if God isn’t a witness, nosey relos probably are. The turntable, too, is used cleverly, at first: Gareth Davies as Rev Tooker pounds out a hymn, or similar, on an upright piano as he emerges from the carnival-conjuring curtain and disappears. When he re-emerges, he’s accompanied by one or other of Mae and Gooper’s many offspring; then another. But it’s deployment after interval becomes too dizzyingly pseudo-cinematic. Yes, it allows us to see all the actors, by, um, turns. Yes, it builds on the mounting tension generated throughout the whole play. And yes, it grates. I mean, why not have the actors simply move? Too radical? Not radical enough?
Let me just say this: by the end, I wanted to take to that revolving disc (and all others like it) with a jackhammer.
The second and biggest bombshell was the almost immediately apparent decision to go with the vernacular we know, rather than that in which TW conceived and wrote his play. Well, Aussie accents, anyway. Well, mostly. Except when even the actors’ primary associations (which, down under, are bound to be Richard Brooks’ 1958 film adaptation) lead them to lapse into Delta drawl. For mine, it’s a disquieting foot in both camps, for none has gone to the trouble or expense of rewriting the play, forfeiting Mississipian geographical references for, say, suburban Sydney ones; the only way Stone’s argument for Aussie accents can truly prove defensible and credible is for the deep south of the US to be substituted by our nearest equivalent; which may or may not be a place like “the shire”. You can’t have it both ways is my point. And the aggravations that arise are more-or-less constant. It’s highly unlikely any Australia son, in this day and age, or any, would call his father sir, let alone Big Daddy, unless he was taking the, er, pith. There are many other examples of these jarring anomalies.
Now, of course, if one were to take the directorial decision to stay with the original context, no such anomalies need arise. In short, dragging Williams’ text, kicking and screaming (or hollerin’) into 2013 Australia isn’t necessary to make the play contemporary. Albeit with minor political adjustments, the sexual, marital and familial conflicts raised in 1955 still resonate just as loudly and clearly right here, right now. In the end, apart from playing havoc with the play itself, threatening its ruination and very nearly achieving it, it’s patronising to spoon-feed us by altering accents.
Let’s move on. For mine, the play is substantially miscast. Jacqueline Mackenzie doesn’t have to be Liz Taylor, but that’s who most of us will be expecting. All the more reason to subvert that expectation, I might typically argue. But let’s look at the character she plays. Maggie, Brick’s sex-starved wife, aching for intimacy, orgasm and the fulfilment of a child. She must be sensuous. She’s built that way by TW. For all Mackenzie’s skill, valiant effort, charm and efficacy in meeting her director’s vision for her character, a neurotic housewife talking 19 to the dozen isn’t the same thing at all as the prowling feline stalking her husband for affection Taylor gave us. Not that Maggie need be a steaming hot, voluptuous belle. Barbara Bel Geddes, who originally played the role on Broadway, was a rather more slender, homely creature, yet, as is apparent in the only known surviving clip of such, she imbued the role with a vampish volatility that still sets a high hurdle.
That performance fulfilled the first tenet of Stone’s rather elaborate rationale for his production: “On any given night in the theatre, the play being performed should feel to an audience like it’s never been performed before.” (Of course, it hadn’t. But that’s beside the point.) McKenzie’s doesn’t have the same freshness, frankness, vitality, vigour, or undercurrents of perturbation. Well, of course not the same. We don’t want the same. As Stone says: “Cat On A Hot in Roof needs to stop being a classic the night we watch it.”
In the end, though, this, while arguably right-thinking, is wishful and willful. It is a classic. There’s no escaping it. Even in the theatre. We need to to deal with things as they are. Even in the theatre. Moreover, Stone’s entire argument seems like an elaborate, dog ate my homework excuse for bad decisions made early on.
Ewen Leslie is Brick. He sounds like a trumpet and has decided, or it’s been decided for him, that Brick should be a kind of Hamlet, even if his revenge be on himself, as much as anyone. Leslie’s Brick comes off as dry, detached and self-righteous, rather than confused, repressed and as desperate for affection as his pathetic wife. While, for such a young actor, his accomplishments (on stage and screen) are many and significant, he seems almost antithetical to this role. And his pairing with McKenzie beggars believability.
Much like Leslie, the aforementioned Davies, who has chalked up a solid number of reputable roles I’ve much admired, seemed ordinary as Tooker, the preacher. Admittedly, the character is as dilute and fat-free as skim milk, but I didn’t get nearly enough of a sense of his creeping, parasitic presence, as welcome as a mosquito in the middle of the night. Tooker needs to ooze, his textbook, homogenised, pre-packaged, mindless, heartless morality and its tactless expression ringing as true and sounding as sincere as an ethics lecture from a bot.
Alan Dukes’ Gooper (“brother man”) disappoints too. Sure, he has the requisite appearance of a dork, but he doesn’t seethe, veritably vibrate, brightly burn with the kind of fostering, latent, retrogressive resentment one might expect from a firstborn who knows his younger, much less successful brother is very much the golden child. Nor did Justin Smith seem too comfy with a stethoscope: his Dr Baugh was appropriately sober, but somehow flaccid.
You’d have to be Rip Van Winkle only just woken to have missed the publicity about Marshall Napier stepping into the breach at the 11th hour as Big Daddy. I can well picture Phelan in the role but, even with script still in hand on opening night, Napier looks mighty promising. Already, there’s a robustness about him that’s completely relative to the character as written.
The two actors that excel are both women. Rebecca Massey’s Mae (“sister woman”), a calculating busybody and schemer, who feigns affection for Big Daddy and manipulates her children into ingratiating (or what she hopes, in vain, will be), Von Trappesque recitals, colours the character a repellent purple, by dint of her slithering proclamations of filial love for her father-in-law.The moment around Big Daddy’s birthday table when she taps her foot metronomically immediately before stepping up as choirmistress to her modestly talented kids is one of many in which she shows even a coarse character like Mae’s can be shaded to become even less likeable.
But it’s Lynette Curran’s Big Mama the steals the show. She’s the only one who communicates any real pathos, for starters. And, given that Stone has commanded “let them be Aussies”, she’s taken on the full mantle. She could be a woman who’s been running a cattle station, or outback pub, for donkey’s years. She’s a stoic, hiding he vulnerability behind a wall of denial. She’s a saving grace for this production. And it needs ’em.
It’s simple, Simon. Play it straight. Neat. On the rocks. You seem to be labouring under the misapprehension we need Echo Springs turned into VB for us.
Wouldn’t it be funny, if that was true?
The details: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until April 7, and then transfers to the Theatre Royal for a season April 10-21. Tickets on the company website.