Thursday, 28 March 2013

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Belvoir

When I finished watching "Death of a Salesman" last year, one of the things I thought about was the use of the Australian accent in an American play. And I said to myself, it's an interesting approach, and it works here, but I can't really see how it'd work with Tennessee Williams.

So Belvoir obviously decided to show me how it'd work. Or ... not. Or ... sorta.

Oddly enough, I don't think much of the problem with this production has to do with accents. Far more has to do with period. For me, "Cat on A Hot Tin Roof" is a play about people who can't quite speak the truth about what's happened to them - the big conversation in the closet being precisely what was going on between Brick and Skipper, and why this has caused Brick to retreat into self-disgust and alcoholism.

And, due to this being a 1950's play, it's never quite said. And there are two, to my mind, equally valid interpretations. Either Brick genuinely did harbour a sexual passion for Skipper that he's unable to face, or, to my mind more interestingly, that maintaining the rules of the closet around that relationship by never talking about what was going on between them, Brick blames himself for killing his best friend.

But the largescale avoidance of talking about the topic feels very 1950s rather than contemporary - it doesn't really ring true as something contemporary characters would do or how they'd behave.

I'm not sure to what extent this is part of what's going on in the script - Williams' structure is a little odd - act one is basically a monologue for Maggie with interruptions from Brick, Act two largely consists of a long conversation between Brick and Big Daddy, and Act Three has most of the cast gathering for Brick's brother-and-sister-in-law to drop the truth about Big Daddy's medical condition on Big Momma. And Acts Two and Three work - in particular, the Brick and Big Daddy conversation plays like gangbusters,  because it's the closest anybody gets to having an honest conversation. Act Three's a little odd as Big Momma's been skirted the edges of caricature during Act Two, and therefore suddenly having her as the solid voice of logic and determination causes a bit of mental whiplash. And "Cat" is a particularly odd script in the first place, with Williams rewriting Act three repeatedly for different productions (we get what appears to be roughly his first draft, with no Big Daddy appearance).

This does feel more like an exercise for Simon Stone than something he's genuinely passionate about (the way that "Salesman" felt drawn from the heart) - there's a lot of production bells and whistles (including some quite spectacular use of the revolve) going on that doesn't  conceal that it isn't always hitting the emotions right. On one very shallow note, Ewan Leslie's hair as Brick is attrocious - for a character who's meant to inspire great loyalty from several people around him, making him a Jason Schwartzman-looking dweeb doesn't exactly indicate natural charisma.

The other thing to note is that this production makes clear the intense loyalty the female characters feel towards their fairly unworthy partners - Maggie towards the distant Brick, and Big Momma towards the verbally abusive Big Daddy. If the word didn't carry unfortunate connotations towards women, I'd almost say they're more dogs than cats - loyal to people irregardless of whether that loyalty is earned.

So it's an interesting night in the theatre that only really grabbed me by the heart once, rather than a completely successful one. I don't think it's by any means a failure, and there's a lot worth watching, but I don't think it's the triumph that it should be either.

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