Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: James Mcdonald
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
The thickness of the air around the clifftop veranda feels almost physical in James Mcdonald’s production of this hot, sticky, sometimes disturbing, always intriguing play. Trapped in a Mexican rainforest at a tin-roofed collection of shacks trying to be a hotel where people can run to when their problems get overwhelming, a group of people are thrown together for a night that will show them their best and worst sides.
Set in 1940, the focus is on the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) who lands at the spot whilst nominally in charge of a tour group of Texan ladies. He runs from them, fearing mutiny after sleeping with a 16 year old girl on the tour, and seeks sanctuary in the hotel run by Maxine Faulk (Anna Gunn), an old friend – convincing her to take in a lady and her grandfather who can’t pay, and meeting the family of joyous Nazi’s who drink and playing beach games whilst the Luftwaffe chalk up early victories against the Allies. It’s a wild group – split between whimpering and tearing at the world.
Running long, at about three hours (with an interval) and with relatively little action, the sense of disaster just around the corner is ever-present. Shannon’s mental state is clearly unstable (given perhaps a little too much opportunity to try and self-pityingly explain his courtship of underage girls and violence thanks to his religious and familial past) and surrounded by the lonely, the self-righteous and the opportunistic his descent into fracture is fascinating. We wait for the big bang, but thanks to William’s confidence in creation, it never comes – resolving instead into a happy ending we can all believe in for this unlikable man. Owen’s execution of this role feels strange at first – low energy and caricature – but it soon makes sense, drawing the audience in and making us feel, not just believe, in his search for salvation from his own life.
We can see William’s semi-autobiographical self at play here – an exploration of struggle with a lack of inspiration, with feelings of escapism and a tension between his American life and the one he’s drawn to south of the border. Rae Smith’s beautiful, detailed, expressive set serves to focus the audience’s attention like a big concave mirror. We know that the veranda looks out on an unbroken stretch of water – 8000 miles to China – but all we see is fixed inwards to the clashing and gnashing of these troubled souls as they pass a disturbed day and night together.
Lia Williams as the wandering artist Hannah Jelkes is wonderful to watch. A calm, sad presence around which the flurries of this stormy night fly. Anna Gunn as the widow Faulk is brassy, a strong woman in tough circumstances, she seems like the only character who knows what she wants. The germans are fun but strange, the leader of the woman’s tour is a little thin and jokey, but all together this cast creates a superb atmosphere and experience.
A lot of the play relies on drawing out the tension in Shannon’s life, with the ultimate reward being not an explosion but a peaceful resolution. Do we cheer for this violent seducer, what about the lonely spinster Hannah? William’s poetic script and Mcdonalds playful production combine to ensure we don’t quite have to make a choice – as sad a story as this seems to be, it’s a happy ending for all.
Runs until 28 September 2019 | Image: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg