Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Simon Stone takes the South out of Tennessee Williams. (theatre review)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is starting to look a little like a Shakespeare play, it’s been done and played with so many times. When one is going to see  a play one is so familiar with, it becomes more an exercise in interpretation than an attempt to seek any sort of surprise from the script. Having said that, I have only ever seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on film, so to see it brought to life in theater – as intended, homosexual references and all – was a fresh way to look at a beautiful piece of writing I have loved for a long time.

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The Belvoir director here is Simon Stone, and he has done a little fiddling with the script to bring it alive in new and interesting ways. Notable instantly is the lack of southern accents – and its a joy to behold. By keeping the Southern American sweltering inferences and infusing the lusty script with Australian accents and inflections, the play takes on a universality that becomes inclusive.  Another movement to take the film off the screen and plonk it, heaving, into our laps. Of course (as we all know) this was always a theatre production, and with a writer like Williams and actors like Jacqueline McKenzie and Ewen Leslie it pops off the stage in a way it never could on the screen. Its almost like its broken through the  fourth wall.  So much of the subject matter is close to home – the conversation between Brick and big daddy with its repression and frustration and circular comforting is so similar to the conversations all children have with their parents, even when relations are good. Let’s face it, your family know you too well and therefore least of all.

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Another enhanced aspect of the production currently showing at the Belvoir is the homosexual underpinnings. The play is on during our mardi gras season and a large rainbow of ribbons separate the circular stage for the first part of the production, until they are torn down in desperation by Big Daddy when Brick is honest about “his” phone call with Skipper and Big Daddy’s condition – actually both their conditions. The famous film played down the homosexual aspect of the writing, thinking the story controversial enough without it.  With the rainbow curtain and the exquisitely beautiful performance of Ewen Leslie the homosexual undercurrents swirl with the power and thrust  Williams always intended.  Watching Brick down drink after drink becomes a madding viewing experience and the anguish of his situation dire. I used to be frustrated by Brick, thinking him to be a selfish football oaf, but after watching Leslie in the role, you get a true sense of the aching bitter sadness of the endless repression that never ever ceases in its subterranean drone.

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With the elimination of the accents, we lose some of the word play Williams intended.  Stone seems to have balanced this loss with a series of staged monologues, often turning the characters shrill cry into a declarative yawp. This works, particularly with Jacqueline McKenzie’s ‘Maggie the cat’ who is more like the cat on the hot roof than any performance I’d previously seen.  She is desperate. Everything around her is out of her power to control and she’s too out of her depth to deal with it casually. She’s always been out of her depth, hence the fumbled desperation of her carry-on’s with Skipper, and she continues this error over and over before our eyes. This is a gorgeous, sexually potent straight woman trying desperately to get her good looking gay husband to make her pregnant. The hopelessness and dark comedy of it reverberate around the stage through these monologues thrown in desperation at the audience and other clever techniques such as walking against the revolving stage and moving either side of the rainbow curtain. Simon Stone keeps his direction subtle, leaving all the emphasis on the actors and Williams fatally fecund prose.

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Considering the play is about people who are physically close and yet hopelessly disconnected, the intimacy of the play encouraged through Stones direction makes this a piece of theatre that reaches in and twists at your guts and often includes the audience in the feelings of physical closeness and disconnect. I always get the feeling I am trespassing on something deathly private when I see a performance of Cat on a hot tin roof, but never as much as I did seeing it at the Belvoir in February 2013.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on at the Belvoir until April 7, and then it moves to the Theatre Royal. Tickets are available here.

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