May 5, 2019
Friday 3rd May 2019, 7:30pm, Roslyn Packer Theatre
With a cast led by Hugo Weaving, Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winner A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is given a 21st century makeover by Director Kip Williams. Retaining a relevance 64 years after it premiered in 1955, this story of the Deep South’s nouveau riche holds a universality in its expression of family power plays and struggles with secrets and lies.
While many may know the American Classic, either from previous stage shows or the Richard Brooks directed motion picture starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, for those unfamiliar with the story, it centres on the Pollitt family as they gather for patriarch Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. The imposing plantation owner, played by Hugo Weaving, has been ill but in an effort to make his last birthday a happy event, the family has decided to keep both Big Daddy and Big Mama (Pamela Rabe) in the dark about the true nature of his health but that doesn’t stop the next generation strategizing on how to get hold of control of the 28,000 acre estate. Eldest son Gooper (Josh McConville) and his wife Mae (Nikki Shiels) feel that they should be given the estate given that they are responsible adults who have also provided a brood of grandchildren. Unfortunately for them, Big Daddy has no great affection for Gooper and even less for Mae and the five “no neck monsters”. His favorite child is former football star come sports reporter Brick (Harry Greenwood) but the young man has declined into an alcohol-controlled depression that no one, not even his beautiful and passionate wife Maggie (Zahra Newman), can figure out how to break.
As the work takes place exclusively in Brick and Maggie’s room within the Pollitt estate mansion, set designer David Fleischer has created an expansive suite that has a contemporary minimalism with elements Big Mama would have collected over the past half a century. Whilst the work remains in Mississippi based on the accents employed, Fleischer has refrained from trying to recreate any of the Southern stylings, opting for a monochromatic palette, sharp lines and a multitude of mirrors. The positioning on an upper floor of the mansion is conveyed by a circular stairway that descends below the stage, twisted around a large column that forms one of the rare structural features of the space. A retro mirrored bar cabinet and a wall of mirrored wardrobes dominate the space which also includes a bed, seating arrangements and a shower stall indicating that the rooms have been set up as somewhat self-sufficient retreats in the home. The challenge of secrets is heightened by the lack of any representation of any significant barriers as even if the doors were closed, as often referenced, there are still no privacy.
Mel Page’s costume design continues Fleischer’s aesthetic with the core characters in a similar series of sophisticated whites and blacks, with a few exceptions. The recently injured Brick remains in white shorts and dressing gown as he refuses to participate in the celebrations. Opportunistic and evil Mae is set outside of the family circle with peach and orange party dress which works with her flame red hair, a trait passed on to her spawn, to amplify a grotesque image of a desperate woman who will never gain her in-law’s affections. This is in contrast to Maggie’s sophisticated outfits, many of which lay discarded as she changes in scene 1, that show that while she has married into the family, she belongs much more than Mae.
The severity of the staging is echoed by Nick Schlieper‘s lighting which uses a somewhat stark design, punctuated by a bold expression of the fireworks the family are watching on an offstage gallery. Whilst techniques are repeated, the time between is sufficient to still cause a shock and each cycle presented slightly differently. William’s use of Fleischer’s mirrors and Schlieper’s lighting focus also adds an additional element to the work as scenes can be seen from various angles. Stefan Gregory‘s sound design and composition has common jazz thread, following on from Maggie’s opening rendition of Arthur Hamilton‘s Cry Me A River. This choice for live vocals makes good use of Newman’s musical theatre background and puts Maggie’s concerns over her husband’s relationship with his best friend on the table early. Bold horns build as the emotion is set to explode and an unencumbered drum kit colors anticipation whilst strains of the opening song are repeated throughout.
Zahra Newman is fabulously fiery as Maggie, capturing the spirit of the cat of the title as she dominates Act 1. She captures Brick’s ambitious wife’s fears that her escape from poverty is going to be derailed by her husband’s disinterest at protecting his place as heir apparent. She ensures that at face value Maggie is seen as a loving, passionate wife who wants her husband’s affections while also expressing her feeling of constantly scrambling for security, both financially and emotionally. Whilst it becomes clear that Maggie set her sights on the college football hero and son of a millionaire long before the night on show, Newman makes sure that Maggie is still given a degree of humanity and compassion towards Brick and his parents, even if she openly loathes his Mae and Gooper and their children. Her physicality is intense as she has a near perpetual motion to match the first act monologue.
Harry Greenwood delivers a relatively subdued Brick, highlighting the alcoholic’s desire to try to distance himself from the noise and chaos. This allows growth to the confrontation with Big Daddy as secrets are unearthed and lies corrected. His movement captures the young man’s pain of a recently broken leg along with a dramatic physicality as he is often forced to manage without a crutch. He captures Brick’s self-loathing with a balance to have the audience feeling pity for his inability to accept his feelings and an anger that he treats homosexuality with a vile hatred.
Pamela Rabe presents matriarch Big Mama as a caricature of the nouveau riche with an ungainly movement in heels and an off-white evening gown. The older woman’s desire to keep everyone happy is presented with a comic expression that serves as a veneer that hides the fact that she has been trying to unearth the secrets that are being concealed in the house.
Josh McConville and Nikki Shiels ensure that Gooper and Mae are thoroughly ghastly characters and the presentation of four of their children (the fifth is represented by a carried puppet) will ensure that anyone that had any notion of having children is firmly dissuaded from this thought and for those that aren’t a fan of children in the first place, will further cement their disdain for the little creatures. Family priest Reverend Tooker doesn’t seem to have much purpose in the piece except to stumble along oblivious to the chaos unfolding and Peter Carroll makes the most of his moments which also provide moments of comic relief. Similarly, Anthony Brandon Wong’s role as family physician Doctor Baugh is also extremely minor and serves to not only share the truth of Big Daddy’s health but also present a silent question of what an outsider thinks of the family.
Hugo Weaving dominates the production as he inhabits the role of Big Daddy. He exudes the power and position that the self-made millionaire. He ensures that even though the audience know Big Daddy’s real fate, he never really gains the sympathy that kind of diagnosis would expect due to how venomous he is towards his wife of 40 years. He makes it clear that Big Daddy is a man of a different time, staying in a marriage to a woman he can no longer stand, but also adding the surprise of a seemingly progressive and understanding father willing to accept if his son really did love another man.
Captivating and powerful, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF forces the audience to consider what we are prepared to do to achieve our goals and what do we do if our dreams aren’t going to plan. Will we keep secrets, will we tell lies, or will we tell the truth and at what cost does that truth come with.