Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Anthony Almeida
Big Daddy asks his son, Brick, why he drinks. ‘Mendacity,’ he replies, helpfully defining it as, ‘Lies and Liars.’ And that’s the heart of this production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: everyone has secrets; everyone lies. Over a celebratory evening meal at Big Daddy’s plantation home, layers are peeled away and the lies exposed.
In the programme, the designer, Rosanna Vize, explains the dilemma in depicting this setting and the questions the team asked themselves: What do we need to allow people to be alone, and yet overheard? How can we create loneliness in a crowded room? The harsh monochromatic sparse set is the team’s answer. The stage is largely empty with benches on three sides and a table. But most striking is the circular gauze curtain hanging like a column. At times we strain to see what is going on inside as characters are physically as well as emotionally separated. As time goes on, even that sanctuary is lost as past and present motivations are revealed, one-by-one. Occasionally, cast members will loom just outside the playing space, observing, listening.
This is a very thoughtful production, with Director Anthony Almeida trying to strip away nearly seventy years of acquired wisdom about the play to present something fresh and new that speaks to audiences today. It’s dialogue-heavy and it takes one’s ear a short time to tune in to the characters’ southern drawl. While much is intense, there are flashes of humour that the audience pounces on, grateful for the light relief. While there are some dramatic tricks that don’t quite land, on the whole, the experience is powerful and ultimately cathartic.
The first characters we meet are Big Daddy’s second son, Brick (Oliver Johnstone), and his wife, Maggie (the Cat) (Siena Kelly) in a fiery opening scene. Their marriage is struggling and they are now sleeping separately. Maggie is worried that they are becoming distanced from Big Daddy and that Brick’s brother, Gooper, and his wife Mae might inherit the family wealth. But her remonstrations fall on largely deaf ears: Brick is trapped inside his own vortex; for now, Maggie must remain outside. Johnstone somehow makes Brick a sympathetic character even as he wallows in self-pity. Kelly’s incredibly feline Maggie is sultry and seductive – but unable to move him. Both characters are instantly believable and remain at the centre of the storm that develops around them. Shanaya Rafat brings us a Mae with a very specific view of what is right and wrong. In particular, the lifestyle she and Gooper enjoy, with five children and another on the way, is right, unlike that of Brick and Maggie. A scene in which the true colours of Mae and Gooper (Sam Alexander) are revealed is especially powerful with their changing emotions becoming ever clearer and ever more feral. Peter Forbes’ Big Daddy is a straightforward, largely self-made man. Forbes brings us his conflicted emotions and later confusion around the members of his family well.
This is not an easy watch by any means, the themes are often heavy and the characters are largely unsympathetic and difficult to warm to. Nevertheless, as a dark dissection of a family whose members lurch from crisis to crisis, it certainly works
Runs until 18 September 2021 and touring