FringeReview UK 2018
Through his relationship with the outgoing Young Vic director David Lan, Benedict Andrews again takes on a Tennessee Williams classic. Despite the contemporary setting, we’re fixed in Alice Babidge’s relatively timeless costumery. It’s further underlined by Magda Willi’s bronzed hotel bedroom: more a Vegas escorial than the super-realist ranch Williams envisaged, where Jon Clark’s lighting beats down as relentlessly as you’d expect, Gareth Fry’s sound stabs on dramatic occasion. where even Jed Kurzel’s music slinks its way around the set. To be seen on re-screenings at future dates.
Benedict Andrews again takes on a Tennessee Williams classic. Through his relationship with the outgoing Young Vic director David Lan, he’s forged a style that vestigally updates the 1950s to now, though he holds back too.
Both Andrews’ 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire and 2017’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof refract scalloped edges of our time. So the previous production’s slow clothing shift from the 1950s to now is here simply fixed in Alice Babidge’s relatively timeless costumery. It’s further underlined by Magda Willi’s bronzed hotel bedroom: more a Vegas escorial than the super-realist ranch Williams envisaged, where Jon Clark’s lighting beats down as relentlessly as you’d expect, then gratefully blacks out. Hushed scenes play in near darkness. It’s anonymous though, as hotels are, and doesn’t aggressively suggest 2017 either. That’s reserved for a flicker of mobile phones and iPads. It’s as if Andrews doesn’t want to push his point too far. The bedroom contains a curious power shower that somehow doesn’t wet much more than Brick, as Jack O’Connell gyrates under it in a perpetual self-cleansing act that only alcohol sluices. And it’s the actors who make you forget the gimmicks and burn through to the play. With the two leads, even the vaunted nudity functions as a parabola of exposure culminating in a shimmering final scene.
That’s with the aid of scattered ice cubes that don’t melt, a spectacular end to a birthday cake, and a ruckus of fireworks (Gareth Fry’s sound) that sounds like Valhalla. And if that cues Wagner, at one point Maggie puts on a blip of Tristan und Isolde: that monument of sexual non-consummation blasts the hasty grouping in bricks’ bedroom, and is cut off. A neat touch, where even Jed Kurzel’s music slinks its way around the set but doesn’t intrude.
You wonder what Andrew is after, since even more than Streetcar, Cat depicts an scenario impossible to imagine taking place now. In other words homoerotic shame and the virtual inability to speak of it seems farcical. Whereas in 1955 it was well, hot. Cat’s unusual structure breaks the play into monologue-beaten panels, like the bronzed walls closing in on the couple.
Sienna Miller’s Maggie has a virtual monologue to herself for the entire first act, an agonised scena of sexual frustration, broken by smouldering grunts and a few one-liners by O’Connell. She launches it like a scorched aria, her pinched vocal arc slanting to wheedles snarls and spitting: inevitably, a cat. Whilst she does so O’Connell’s Brick slowly fixates on the clutch of whiskey bottles downstage centre. They allow his occasional crab-like movements to snatch and pour, scatter ice in the deft scoop of a superannuated sportsman still exuding an animal grace, in a haze of level-eyed self-destruction. It’s fuelled by a self-hatred his sexually imploring wife only engorges and inflames. His crutch though is a moral one too. More than the excuse for his crazy school-track stunt the night before, it allows him to avoid his father Big Daddy’s birthday; and with luck his brother and sister-in-law and their verminous brood of five with another on the way.
Miller’s pinched yawl chimes with her cat-like self-humiliating padding towards her adored Brick like a cat, wagging a non-existent tail. She knows his anguish, the guilt she shares at his beloved Skippers death. O’Connell’s dangerous slow shudder at Miller as well increasingly engulfs himself. It’s a truly sizzling chemistry.
The remarkable thing is Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy, not yet aware he’s dying of cancer. Everything about the self-made redneck is both predictable and startling. Meaney gradates his roar, purrs with the power of a Bentley and bellows to disperse the fiendishly choreographed quintet of ‘no-neck monster’ grandchildren used as stalking-horses to snatch their grandfather’s heart and 28,000 acres with £90 million for their parents. They’re magnificently horrible. Williams’ capacity for grotesque humour always bubbles even here, in this most classically-conceived of his works.
Big Daddy loves the introverted Brick and indeed Maggie and can’t stand his go-getting lawyer elder son Brian Gleeson’s oleaginous controlling Gooper – a thankless role Gleeson brings off with a menacing heft under the icy urbanity. His bawl’s expected, his tolerance indeed understand in the key colloquy of the second act is something else again. Big Daddy too for different reasons couldn’t cope with the voracious sexual demands of his wife, Lisa Palfrey’s youthfully appealing Big Mama. He’s simply, terribly disliked her for most of their marriage, though ‘leches’ after Maggie who curiously appreciates it. It’s an almost incidental cruelty. Palfrey’s flutter of interfering denial and Brick-smothering sentimentalism hiding terrible hurt and rejection.
His wife, Hayley Squires’ Mae, crackles with sly ambition nasty innuendoes and barely-concealed glee as to Big Daddy’s demise: and he knows it. Maggie ahs apologized for her behaviour to Brick but Miller’s compulsive tic needling Squires’ Mae is blissfully nasty. Like Palfrey Squires too is hardly the shapeless rival Maggie can preen herself over by comparison, as she parades her nakedness around O’Connell’s naked and truly exposed brick. There’s almost a sleekness of equals in their sand-off.
In minor roles Michael J Shannon’s seraphic inconsequence doesn’t exclude a little hurt dignity as he exits; and Richard Hansell’s Dr Baugh exudes a steely complicity.
There have been classic accounts to eclipse this production, but O’Connell in particular throbs with a ferocious identification few can have matched. Miller and Meaney in particular as well as Palfrey and the wonderfully obnoxious Squires more than transport us back to the 1950s, away from directorial theatre and back to the elemental denials hurtling everyone to destruction. The one ray of hope is the disrobing finale. Here, Andrews takes Maggie literally about who’s now the stronger; Miller seizes her chance. It’s a riveting conclusion, for the right reasons.