In arguably what is Tennessee William’s most famous play, yearning and desperation boil over in the oppressive heat of the Mississippi delta. Brick Politt, the indulged youngest son, a onetime all-star athlete sinks into alcoholism to appease his gnawing guilt. His wife Maggie is driven to the edge of reason by her desire for a child, and the love for her husband she fears she has lost forever. Meanwhile, the rest of the family gathers for Big Daddy’s birthday, as the patriarch reckons with death and regrets.
The director, Benedict Andrews, has made some bold creative choices in the staging. The action has been updated from 1950s America; mobile phones make several appearances, Big Mama teeters in high heels and an eye-wateringly short, tight mini-dress, rather than the opulence of the Politt estate that Williams describes in his stage directions, the characters inhabit a something of a gilded prison.
Some of these changes are more successful than others. The use of the brassy metal to construct the pared down stage gives a real sense of the oppressiveness of the Southern heat, transforming the glare of the stage lights into a heavy, shimmering presence. The modern-day setting on the other hand is needlessly distracting. Brick is paralysed by guilt because of his ambiguously homoerotic feelings towards his dead friend, Skipper. Some may think it incongrous with modern attitudes that there should be so much shame associated with the relationship. This didn’t concern me much; the sad fact is, despite everything, the closet is alive and well. It is difficult, however, to square the changes to Big Mama’s character. in Lisa Palfrey’s performance all shred of dignity is sacrificed on the altar of comedic potential. Although the laughs are welcome, this makes the moments of true pathos less potent.
Brick gathers momentum like a coiled spring being compressed tighter and tighter
At its best Cat on a Hot Tin Roof should be the clash of two equals in Brick and Maggie. Here, the partnership between Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell is lopsided. Though Miller ably bears the weight of the steady frenzy of conversation Williams demands of his female lead, her performance lacks the muscularity to really sell it. Frequently sharp and witty, and sensual when it is asked of her, Miller is never truly able to convey the depth of the desperation that propels Maggie through the play. O’Connell by contrast lights up the stage with his intensity. One eye permanently on the cluster of whiskey bottles at the bottom of the stage that grow progressively emptier, Brick gathers momentum like a coiled spring being compressed tighter and tighter, before exploding with terrifying violence. The catharsis of Brick breaking through the fug of his careful numbness is visceral. O’Connell’s performance matures wonderfully through the acts, and even in the most charged scenes O’Connell allows Brick’s vulnerability and hopelessness to pierce through the veneer of ambivalence he has constructed around himself.
The two leads are ably aided by their co-stars. Lisa Palfrey is funny and touching. Colm Meaney brings convincing Mississippi red-neck-style gravitas to Big Daddy. Brian Gleeson and Hayley Squires as Gooper and Mae, Brick’s brother and sister in law angling for their inheritance, are terrific, deploying their brood of “monstrous” children to great effect.
There is much to admire about this production, but one can’t help but long for a staging without the deviations from William’s original. In an interview about the play with the artistic director of the Young Vic, David Lan, Andrews explains why he thinks William’s plays have kept their power over six decades; “[Williams] held a thermometer into the American mid-century”. By transplanting the Politts to the early twenty first century, Andrews has lost some of the keenness of Williams’ observations.
3.5 stars Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo theatre, London, until 7 October Tickets from £20