Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Robert Chevera
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
With Tennessee Williams, you want heat. You want intense emotional situations and you want characters railing against their surroundings, engaged in a futile battle against their own natures. Think of the meeting of Blanche and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, she is repulsed by this ill-mannered lout but drawn irresistibly to his physicality; think of Brick the hero of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who hides in drink and family resentment so he doesn’t have to face his own guilt. Williams’ characters begin on the edge and what takes place on stage breaks them.
In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel is one of Williams’ later short and rarely performed plays in which he experiments with a terse and more succinct style. Artist Mark believes he is the form of his life and paints furiously in a hotel room in Tokyo giving everything to his latest works. Meanwhile, his neglected wife of 34 years Miriam sits alone downstairs in the bar, chatting up the waiter, filling her time with casual affairs and parties. Art has always taken precedence and now Miriam has decided she wants to leave but can Mark ever let her go.
This new Charing Cross Theatre production sits in Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s beautifully designed set of a stylish Japanese bar with quite a severe incline which allows the audience at the back a decent view but occasionally impedes the actor’s movement. It is dominated by an enormous picture window through which we occasionally see the gathering storm clouds and what appears to be paint splashed across the backdrop to open each scene.
More could be made of this technology, perhaps using the paint splodges to underline moments of frenzy and tension in the text which feel somewhat underpowered at present. There are occasional flickers of the intensity of Williams’ words but they fizzle our rather than build to a devastating conclusion. As the play opens, Mark and particularly Miriam should be at a fever pitch, she’s wrung out, resenting her second place in her husband’s life and desperate to be free, but none of that comes across here as she casually flirts with the barman from across the room.
This is a desperate woman who is losing her allure and practically throwing herself at the uninterested young man. Chevera’s direction in this opening scene feels wrong – Miriam shouldn’t be at a table but sitting at the bar, in his space and his way. Linda Marlowe is a predatory and unsympathetic Miriam, grabbing at the poor man and confident that she’ll get what she wants, but she never manages to capture her vulnerability or fear which makes for a sluggish first Act. Similarly, the relationship with Mark is almost all frustration and jealousy but we never really feel they’ve been married for so long or that she ever felt for him, which means in the final moments that we don’t feel her break as she should. Miriam says of herself that she is “a woman burning with nothing to put the flames out” but Marlowe makes her too controlled and calculating.
David Whitworth makes a sensitive Mark, and particularly in Act Two portrays his growing disconnection from reality. While the audience doesn’t entirely feel his all-consuming passion for his art, the need for his wife is quite moving as she becomes increasingly distant. Alan Tukington’s Leonard adds diversity in Act Two, acting as a more sympathetic counterpoint to Miriam while Andrew Koji’s barman seems to struggle with the rhythm of Williams’ speech. In fact, none of the actors have mastered the unfinished sentences that litter this play and make it so revealing a character study. Too often words are left hanging, rather than have another character speak over them, and this instead makes the speech stilted and leaks any tension from the production.
In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel is a chance to see a rare and fascinating piece of Williams’ later writing that deals with the costs of artistic temperament for the artists and those around them, as well as the effect of ageing on a once glamorous woman. Miriam is a physical being pitted against the more emotional Mark, but sadly in Chevera’s production that battle feels too easily won. What it needs is heat.
Runs until14 May 2016 | Image:Scott Rylander