Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Robert Hastie
Reviewer: Charlie Senate
Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway in 1955 to sterling reviews and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama later that year. On considering his body of writing, Williams declared Cat the “closest to being both a work of art and a work of craft.” It is certainly both: a rare, verifiable classic of hulking and ponderous gait, with an intense thematic focus as hot as an ant in the eye of a magnifying glass, as the sweltering Mississippi plantation where the action is set. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a force of writing. And it is that very quality that makes Theatr Clwyd’s production so problematic.
At a sprawling Southern estate, “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile,” a family is gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of patriarch Big Daddy and his bill of clean health after a recent cancer scare. Favourite son Brick hobbles around the bedroom he shares with wife Maggie on a wooden crutch, a laboured circuit between a four-poster bed and liquor cabinet—a telling parlay between antagonised sexuality and the slow disintegration of self in the dregs of a whiskey bottle. Childless Maggie opens the play with a lengthy diatribe about her sister-in-law’s unruly volt of “no-neck monsters.” She follows this with a revelation: Big Daddy’s health is less prosperous than advertised. Brick’s elder brother Gooper, his wife Mae, and their brood have come to lay the groundwork for a last-minute inheritance, and Maggie, who has been poor “all her life,” won’t have it. This is only the first of many lies and indecencies, the virulent strain at the heart of the play: the same crippling “mendacity” Brick claims as his death-wish muse; the same uremia—the body’s inability to purge toxins—that will soon poison Big Daddy.
The action takes place in the intimate space of a couple’s bedroom, but Janet Bird’s beautiful set, made vivid by the subtle yet rich lighting and sound of Colin Grenfell and Matthew Williams, evokes all the crumbling, old-world grandeur of the plantation South and makes the individual corruptions of the characters more striking in comparison. The acting as well is superb across the board. Desmond Barrit is particularly marvelous as the inflammatory and complexly cruel Big Daddy, expertly breathing life into a character who could easily become nothing more than a manifestation of a theme. And while her portrayal lacks the overwhelming sultriness that makes her character so threatening, Catrin Stewart is likewise excellent as Maggie, dancing manically along the thin edge of a nervous breakdown.
But, for all its flourish, for all its naked humanity and ambition of purpose, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is also brutally heavy-handed. Its themes are flung at the audience repeatedly and remorselessly; even the titular metaphor, the so-called cat on a hot tin roof, is used like a bludgeon. Maggie’s opening diatribe, only occasionally and briefly interrupted, seems to languish on endlessly, and while the swirling undercurrent of mortality and futility is still stirring, some of the play’s hot-points, shocking in 1955, are almost tiresome today. Brick’s uncompromising, alcohol-soaked despair feels like a relic of a bygone literary era. And at times, particularly in the first half, the play is simply hard work. Cat is a thinking play and, it bears repeating, truly a force of writing in every way. That forcefulness sometimes makes it difficult to enjoy. It’s the type of majestic, overpowering work that almost gets better after the final curtain—when the time comes to talk about and think about what has just been seen.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a work of unquestionable merit, excellently produced and acted and wonderfully staged. But, it’s also a very challenging work that demands your full attention and, sometimes, a good deal of your patience. This is not light entertainment or a “jolly” evening at the theatre. This is a juggernaut of a play that pulls no punches—and the audience is the other pugilist in the ring.
Runs until 5 March 2016 | Photo: Johan Persson