Cat on a Luke Warm Roof: A Belvoir Production
Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) is just one of those classic plays of the twentieth century. This frequently revived tale tells the story of cotton baron, Big Daddy Pollitt, a man dying of cancer, and his dysfunctional family. In brief, his son, Brick Pollitt, is married to Maggie the Cat. However, since the death of his close friend Skipper, Brick has taken to drinking and his relationship with Maggie has slipped into a sexual limbo. Meanwhile, Brick’s brother Gooper and his wife Mae are working to ensure that Big Daddy’s estate is left to them (and to their five ‘no necked monsters’). Yet, here the conflict begins: Maggie is also determined to remain a benefactor.
Director Simon Stone has done a decent job with his material, though it is far from a phenomenal one. Discussion has circulated regarding his choice to abandon the traditional Southern accent. Williams’ was a Southerner; he knew how the language worked and he knew how to make it sing. So one must ask: is some of that lyricism lost with an Australian accent? The answer is yes. But is it a huge drawback? No, not really. Nevertheless, one does wonder why the choice was made in the first place. Stone claims it is to make the play more ‘universally’ specific to an Australian audience. Yet, if you’re going to leave in all the Southern references is there really much point? Additionally, universality is not something one has to struggle to find here. Unaltered, the play speaks to the darker motives in all of us: lust, avarice, mendacity. Being an Australian is neither here nor there.
In reality, a large part of what was missing came down to performance. Jacqueline McKenzie as Maggie was a touch disappointing. For a role ‘dripping in sex,’ she miscues the nuances and measured pace required for Maggie’s set of monologues. Instead, McKenzie relied on gimmick and speedy delivery – a choice which far from satisfies. To clarify, McKenzie wasn’t awful, not at all. She just made the character far too whimsical and overlooked the crucial part of Maggie’s personality: a deep-seated insecurity.
Ewen Leslie’s Brick was puzzling. He had a fantastic voice and was physically well suited to the role. However, he made a fatal error in juxtaposing dead pan (making for stilted dialogue) with explosive rage. Ultimately, Leslie suffered from McKenzie’s problem – his performance just wasn’t thoughtfully observed. Together they felt like a mismatch, in the wrong way.
Yet Marshall Napier is to be congratulated as Big Daddy. Having stepped into the role not 3 days before the preview, Napier produces a fighting performance, despite being script in hand for sections of Act 2. When without script, Napier dove into the vulnerability of disease – exposing an old man’s regrets and a ‘young again’ man’s hopes.
Lynette Curran, playing Big Mama, similarly showed us the susceptibility and misplaced loyalty of a woman trapped by unreciprocated love. Big Mama’s is a broken marriage; the type our children vow never to have for themselves. It may be her aged wisdom, but Curran (and arguably Napier), understood the tragic dialogue better than most. Curran is outgoing, outrageous but ultimately lonely as Big Mama. When she is verbally abused by Big Daddy, Curran just sits, hunched over, absorbing the blows as her light fades to a well of silent tears. It is heartbreaking.
Honourable mention goes to Rebecca Massey and Alan Dukes, (Mae and Gooper). Massey goes all the way with this cheap and nosey ‘baby machine’. Yet she produces a well observed clarity to Mae’s plea for the plantation in Act 3. Dukes also proves himself here. He is measured in his desperation, a choice which reveals an underlying integrity: he will not beg.
The real star of the show, however, was the set: a stroke of genius. Party streamers cut the stage in half to conceal the upstage area. A turntable allowed for set pieces to be added to the action seamlessly. It also makes for some powerful theatre: as Maggie pursues Brick, explaining her involvement with Skipper, Brick desperately tries to escape. But no matter how much ground they cover, on the turntable, they remain perfectly stationary. It is simply striking.
Of note too, is the climax of the second act. A distraught and bewildered Big Daddy, (finally confronted with the truth of his condition) tears down the streamers in a fit of anger. Symbolically perhaps the final act takes place on an entirely exposed stage; the truth is finally on the cusp after so many lies. With this in mind, one should see the show, if only because of the set. For its few faults the play still delivers, and even moves at times. Ultimately it is a very fine production which sadly fails to reach its full potential. But then again, when you’re working with Tennessee Williams, the bar is always going to be set very high.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on at Belvoir Theatre until April 21, with tickets still available to the Theatre Royal performances starting April 10.
or contact Theatre Royal: 1 300 723 038