May 5, 2019
Many would argue that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the greatest and most beleaguered plays of Tennessee Williams’ career, and indeed the western theatrical canon. Yet it is one with a long history of censorship and suppression, an altogether ironic fate for a play primarily concerned with repression and hiding the truth. Luckily, this lavish production directed by Kip Williams is able to present an unadulterated version of the play to us. Sadly though, its themes of disgust and mendacity seem all too relevant in today’s politically polarised landscape of fake news and false morality.
Hugo Weaving is particularly marvelous as the overbearing patriarch Big Daddy. Weaving’s storied career playing sympathetic, complex, morally grey and even memorably evil characters on stage and screen should leave no-one in any anticipatory doubt over his suitability to do well with one of the great “multifaceted bastard” roles of the theatre. Seeing is believing, however, and as good as the idea of Weaving playing this role may have been in your head, the reality is even more astounding.
If you haven’t engaged with the play for a while or primarily familiar with the sanitised film adaptation, you might be forgiven for misremembering the character as being almost wholly repellent, a tyrannical bully awash with loathing for his family and obsession with his own mortality. Big Daddy is all this, but perhaps easy to forget is that he not only loves Brick (albeit with blatant favouritism) but is surprisingly tolerant and accepting of his son’s potential homosexuality, considering the cultural context.
The fact that this tolerance falls on deaf ears, unable to penetrate the haze of Brick’s alcohol-numbed loathing of himself and all those around him does not negate the fact that the hand of acceptance is offered. However small a sliver of human decency it may be in this otherwise loathsome man, Weaving plays it with such earnest compassion that it acts as a key to unlock his whole performance as one of superior texture and nuance.
Similarly, Zahra Newman is electric and multifaceted in the seminal part of Maggie the Cat. One would be tempted to employ clichés such as she “dominates the stage” or delivers a “scene-stealing” performance, yet either claim would be almost redundant when one considers that the entire first act of the play is practically an epic monologue for Maggie, with only minimal interjections from her sullenly laconic husband Brick, and some fleeting family intrusions. It is the kind of marathon feat of acting that any actress in the role has to ace, lest they condemn the production to immediate death.
What Newman achieves here though, much like Weaving’s subsequent dominance of the second act, is an exceptional performance that not only blitzes the requirements of the scene, but manages to make it her own, indelibly flavouring it with a particular interpretive magic that makes this manic and more than slightly tragic character truly alive, funny, bitter, sexy, sad, pathetic, admirable, unsettling, and utterly riveting to watch.
Unfortunately for all the other actors in the show, these titanic pillars of Newman and Weaving cast such long shadows, not only by the strength of their stellar acting, but by the sheer percentage of the script’s lines they monopolise between them. Worse, there seems to be a degree of stylistic dissonance amongst the cast, whereby the usually canny Kip Williams’ direction seems to have a less than tight grasp on the varied tonal approaches with which his actors are inflecting their performances. Tennessee Williams’ work does, of course, read as intrinsically quite melodramatic to contemporary eyes, and despite the quite serious and even depressing subject matter, his tremendously witty dialogue undoubtedly is a great temptation for actors to veer into the realm of camp.
Indeed, that wouldn’t even be a particularly invalid approach, but the question is one of achieving relative tonal consistency. Harry Greenwood is a solidly adequate but unremarkable Brick, who plays it very straight, as does Josh McConville as his much-maligned brother Gooper, while the usually excellent Pamela Rabe plays Big Mama so broadly that, even as blustery and overwrought a character as she is, appears to have tipped over almost into farce. The always marvellous Peter Carrol delivers similarly broad comic relief only as Reverend Tooker, and Nikki Shiels feels almost pantomimically conniving as Mae. Lest that seem overly harsh, one hastens to add that none of these performances are bad, not a one, merely that their approaches to the text seem to be in different orbits to each other, generally leaning hard into either the dramatic or comedic potentials of the piece without satisfactorily gelling together. This leaves only Weaving and Newman to demonstrate much in the way of subtle or layered dimensions to their performances, albeit with by far the most opportunity to do so.
Hopefully, this is something the cast will be able to smooth out for themselves as the production settles into its run, but it feels like an uncharacteristic misfire for Williams’ direction, one that doesn’t cripple the production, but certainly has it stumbling at the first hurdle.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Director Kip Williams
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre | 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 4 May – 8 Jun 2019
Tickets: $83 – $124