arts

A Double Dose of Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – 5 STARS

Summer and Smoke – 5 STARS

 

TENNESSEE Williams is acknowledged as one of America’s greatest ever playwrights – and rightly so.

He was a master social commentator who wrote about desire, greed and family discord against a backdrop of great change in American society. His work spanned five decades that saw America emerge from depression and poverty to become an economic powerhouse.

A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof are his three finest – and most well-known – plays. Works whose reputations were enhanced by film versions starring some of America’s and this country’s most iconic actors – Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar), Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and Kirk Douglas and Jane Wyman (The Glass Menagerie).

The quality of his outstanding writing was very much in evidence last weekend when National Theatre Live showed Cat On A Hot Tin Roof as part of its 2018 series of broadcasts (Julius Caesar is up next on March 22).

Although the play, directed by Benedict Andrews and which ran last year at The Apollo Theatre, was given a modern update with booming music and mobile phones, it does not detract from Williams’s ability to highlight the corrosive impact of avarice and lies (indeed, a culture of lies) on a family – and also that of unrequited love. Pinter pre Pinter. Sexual tension galore. Secrets aplenty. Scorn en masse.

So, we have Maggie (Sienna Miller) pitted against the hard drinking Brick (Jack O’Connell) whose friendship with Skipper has put a spanner in their marriage – a relationship in turn hampered by the lack of any children (big peer pressure from Brick’s mother and fertile sister-in-law).

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Then there is Big Daddy (Colm Meaney), Brick’s father, who is more ill than he has been led to believe. He despises Big Mama, his wife (a marvellous Lisa Palfrey who can barely fit into her sequinned mini dress) and craves an extra-marital relationship.

He also has little time for his other son Gooper (Brian Gleeson), his wife Mae (a scheming Hayley Squires) and their phalanx of children (five going on six). They are after his land and his inheritance but they have under-estimated the lies Maggie will tell to ensure they do not get their way. Big lies or should that be little lies?

It is marvellous drama, helped by spell-binding performances from the entire cast against a minimalist set – a bed and a shower under which Brick, sporting a pot on his ankle, spends a lot of his time reviving himself from a near lethal combination of sweltering Mississippi heat and too much liquor. There are special moments galore but Miller, at the end crawling towards Brick on all fours like a cat on heat, exceeds them all.

Yet, brilliant though Andrews’s production was, it is important not to forget that some of Williams’s lesser plays – beyond the magnificent trio – deserve wider recognition.

So thank goodness for the Almeida’s bold decision to stage Summer And Smoke, a play written by Williams in 1948 (and also later turned into a film – 1961 – starring Laurence Harvey and Geraldine Page).

The play, again based in Mississippi, is not as raw as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It centres on the unrequited love (yes, that theme again) that Alma Winemiller, daughter of a vicar, has for John Buchanan, son of the local doctor. Love that goes back to when she was a young child and stretches forward when he has seen the world and returned to Mississippi as a successful doctor.

While Alma’s middle name is subservience, John’s is charm. He is good looking and much admired by local girls and women. All ages are attracted to him like a compass is to magnetic north.

Alma (soul in Spanish) cannot break out of herself although she is a good singer and heads a poetry group. She is chaste and proud of it. John cannot help himself falling into the arms of the nearest lady.

Alma’s conservatism, framed by her religious upbringing and the household duties she has had to dutifully perform as a result of her mother’s unstable mental state, does herself no favours. She has feelings but she cannot allow them to break free. She is all soul while John is only interested in the physical. The puritan versus the cavalier. He hands her drugs to help control her frail state of mind.

For all his success, John has a bucketload of vices. He is a drunk, loves loose women, enjoys watching cock fights, spends time at the casino and generally falls into bad ways.
Yet it all climaxes in an extraordinary reversal of roles. Will they consummate their long-standing love or will their love remain unrequited? Will the puritan become a cavalier?

While Andrews’s Cat On The Hot Roof is littered with stars, Summer and Smoke (directed by Rebecca Frecknall) is a platform for fresh exciting talent.

Patsy Ferran excels as Alma – vulnerable and slight. It is a demanding role and she rises to it, delivering a series of impassioned monologues. To John: ‘I’ve lived next door to you all the days of my life, a weak and divided person who stood in adoring awe of your singleness, of your strength – why didn’t it happen between us? Why did I fail? Why did you come almost close enough—and no closer?’

Matthew Needham is not far behind as John.

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Nancy Crane is a wonderful batty (and sniping) Mrs Winemiller while doubling up as Mrs Bassett, a member of Alma’s reading group. Indeed there is a lot of doubling, trebling and quadrupling up of roles. A little confusing for the inattentive, but great acting all the same.

Anjana Vasan deserves a medal for acting out four roles (all romantically connected to John) while Forbes Masson is able to distinguish his Doctor Buchanan from his Reverend Winemiller.

The set (designed by Tom Scutt) is superb with pianos framing the back of the stage in a half-moon. When not performing, the cast sit at the pianos – backs to the audience – and gently play away. A reminder maybe of Williams’s musical writing. The lighting (Lee Curran) is also effective in conveying the Mississippi heat.

Summer and Smoke may not be as coruscating a play as Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. It may not have its stellar cast but wow it is good. Hot stuff.

Summer and Smoke runs until April 7 – Click for Almeida Theatre

For National Theatre Live

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