Tennessee Williams: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Apollo Theatre / Young Vic, London (Director: Benedict Andrews)
By Sascha Krieger
Of course, it’s hard not to think of Trump Tower. Instead of a 1950s Mississippi plantation mansion, Benedict Andrews‘ take on Tennessee Williams‘ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is located in front of a massive gilded wall, courtesy of Swiss set designer Magda Willi. This is a golden cage Williams‘ characters are caught in and it’s one clearly place in the here and now (as proven by the frequent use of mobile phones). A neon rectangle frames the stage which in itself is a rectangular island in a sea of shiny nothingness. All is polished, all is a lie. The setting – only a (black!) bed, a shower and a cosmetics table plus a few bottles of whiskey and a bag of ice are left as remnants of the real world – feels like a mixture of Beckettian emptiness and the all-surface world of reality TV. Where in Beckett everything beyond the stage is nothingness, here it’s the horror of the greed-ridden, image-based reality of today’s late-stage capitalism inhabited by cloned child monsters half Chucky half beauty pageant. And by adults that seem more like mechanical puppets, robots of the eternal hamster wheel of success.
In the midst of all this is a couple that not only have their best days behind them, they might never have had any days at all in their cage-like waiting room the only escape from is oblivion. Jack O’Connell is Brick, the plantation owners favourite son, former sports hero, now an alcoholic, battling with his demons – those originating from society’s and family’s expectations, and those stemming from his refusal to acknowledge the nature of his relationship with his dead best friend who drank himself to death after being rejected by Brick. O’Connell’s voice is raw, his body exposed like an exclamation mark that is actually a question, somewhere between muscular, virile and emaciated, corpse-like. A disaffected man, beaten, dry, even his sarcasm tired and resigned, a quiet broken dream made flesh. But beneath the surface lie wounds the alcohol cannot close. Whenever Skipper is mentioned, O’Connell’s face tightens, his eyes start burning, he threatens to erupt. living in a golden cage breeds self-hate, which at times needs to come out. O’Connell’s Brick is an open wound, a younger brother of the „open knife“ that is Woyzeck with, however, himself being the oppressive force that holds him down. The truth lies between Brick’s physical presence – as accentuated by a focus on O’Connell’s frequently naked body – and his mental and emotional absence. He is an icon, a symbol of brokenness and a sight to behold.
He is a product and instrument of a society that seems to be open and tolerant – yes, bringing the play into the present, works well even with the homosexual storyline, as millions of queer teenagers all over the world could testify – but provides very clear and restrictive role models you better adhere to. Which can have in two results: either the broken individual who, like Brick, drinks himself into an empty, zombie-like shell, or the robot-like puppet who goes through the motions but may well be more lifeless than the lonesome drinker. And here’s where the production begins to fail: For this second category is a set of stupid, plain caricatures, ridiculous, totally over the top and therefore ultimately harmless. Brian Gleeson’s Gooper is a bland soulless lawyer who when struggling with opposition turns into a beligerent child, while Hayley Squires‘ Mae is a walking cliché of the scheming yet ultimately stupid in-law. Lisa Palfrey’s Big Mama may be exemplary for the productions’s weakness: she tries to walk the line between the everything is fine wife cliché and the desperate oppressed woman but cannot quite get those aspects together. She is not alone. Sienna Miller as Brick’s wife Maggie proves to be a disaster. Struggling with the Southern accent – and constantly losing that battle – she seems frighteningly amateurish and two-dimensional with which she single-handedly destroys the production’s first part. Her despair and aspirations, her socially upward desire are drowned in a blandness not even fitting a daily soap opera. She cannot pin down her character, trying for tragedy while Andrews is looking for the comedic quality, the biting wit of Williams’s play, the result being a sort of limbo in the emptiness between the two. His repeated attempts to wash himself clean of the despair, the lies, the self-hate, are bound to fail.
Which leaves Big Daddy. Colm Meaney starts his portrayal with a lazy wealthy and powerful patriarch routine, mildly entertaining but a little boring, too. In the long confrontation with Brick his character’s facade begins to crumble, the assured misanthropy cracks, the desperate longing for warmth and closeness is at least hinted at. The intensity picks up in their scenes ans does the truthfulness. The more cracks appear in both of them – and both actors are masterful in never overdoing it, always keeping the facade, the social construct of the social role they play or refuse to play in sight – the more light shines through. There are plenty of moments in which Beckettian emptiness and all too real despair become present, are made physical in the shape of O’Connell’s muscular body: But there are plenty of others that ring hollow, that are plain cliché pieces, bland comedy or heavy-handed directorial comments in the form of emphasizing music or overly symbolic lightning that do not intensify the atmosphere but rather build distance. Brick often talks about the click in his head he’s aiming for through his drinking, the moment when peace and quiet sets in, even if the price is numbness. Similarly, the production appears to aim for the moment when all comes together, but it doesn’t. The real and the shallow, the tragic and the comic, the broken characters and the plain caricatures don’t fit into an overarching narrative, a connecting tone. The evening remains uneven, unfinished, in limbo. This very relevant play about the power and destructiveness of the lies we tell the world and ultimately ourselves remains in a theatrical no man’s land. And suddenly, while we’re still waiting for the click, it’s over.