You may not have enjoyed the recent heatwave, perhaps it made you more irritable, exhausted or frustrated than usual. Maybe in the soup-like humidity you found it harder to maintain your poise or to be diplomatic, and as the temperatures soared you started offering up some harsh truths or long held family secrets that could no longer be contained. This is, then, apt timing for a revival of one of Tennessee Williams’s most famous and beloved plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which, like much of his work, uses the intense heat of the American South to unveil the greed, fear, loneliness and passionate rivalries in one very broken family.
And for the second time this year, a production tackles a role made famous on film by Elizabeth Taylor; Imelda Staunton made the role of Martha decisively her own in James MacDonald’s very successful version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the spring, and now Sienna Miller gives her take on Maggie Pollitt in Benedict Andrews’s new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, played by Taylor in the glorious 1958 film, which has its press night today.
Set at the Pollitt plantation villa, Big Daddy is celebrating his 65th birthday with a family party attended by his two sons, their wives and children, having just been told untruly that he’s cancer free. But his athletic son Brick, a former-sports announcer and football star, is an alcoholic living reluctantly with cheating wife Maggie who’s desperate to win back his affection, while taunted about her childlessness by her brother-in-law’s 5 cheeky offspring and grasping wife Mae. Brick has broken his leg drunkenly jumping hurdles and on the night of the party, the deep rift in the family cracks open and hard truths come pouring out.
Williams’s play is a masterpiece, revealing the layers of deception and outright lies we tell ourselves and our families about our lives, as his characters are forced to really see themselves for the first time. Apart from Brick who has entirely given up, choosing alcohol over suicide, every other character should feel like they’re fighting for their lives all the time. Gooper, the overlooked and unloved son, and his wife Mae want to secure their inheritance having delivered plentiful heirs and suffered years of being second best; Big Daddy is straining to regain control of his empire having ceded authority during his illness while his wife Big Mama struggles to keep his attention. And then there’s Maggie, scrappy and determined, almost shameless in her desire to win control of her husband, stopping at nothing to restore the future she desires for them, which of course includes their fair share of the money.
Benedict Andrews has chosen a modern-setting and you can see the cast and crew have worked hard to put considerable distance between their interpretation and the famous film. There has been a noticeable move to free classic plays from their traditional period setting in the last few years, and when done well as with Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler, or Andrews’s own A Streetcar Named Desire, it brings the audience closer to the emotional heart of the play, and there’s nothing better than seeing something you know well in an entirely new light.
This version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to do a number of things but its overall effect is only partially successful. The modern setting is fine but while Magda Willi’s design is striking, it does slightly impede the action. Maggie and Brick’s sparse bedroom on a raised central dais certainly reflects the current emptiness of their marriage, and is surrounded by 3 corridor spaces with gold floor panels and a mirrored tin back wall (see what they did there?). The idea is to present the monied but slightly tasteless lives of the Pollitt family, rich but ultimately hollow, with the tin wall distortedly reflecting the gold floor and the characters to emphasise the warped emptiness of their lives. Combined with Alice Babidge’s expensive but tacky costumes, the visual aesthetic is a sort of trashy Dallas.
But much of Williams’s play depends upon characters inopportunely interrupting meaningful conversations or heading onto the veranda to escape the stifling interior in search of a cooling breeze. Willi’s set reflects some of the play’s themes but it doesn’t create that feel of overwhelming heat, or convincingly suggest that there are other rooms beyond the one we see. Using just a neon frame as the rear wall of Maggie and Brick’s room, characters come and go from various ‘doors’ we cannot see but in the surrounding openness you don’t get the sense of covert eavesdropping and deception that is part of the fabric of the play. The vastness of the set has an echo that makes it seem more like an enclosed vault than part of a wider house wilting in the muggy climate of the South.
And there is a sense throughout that the show hasn’t quite utilised the huge potential in Williams’s story, as though you’re seeing a bit of a wider picture. The central relationship between Maggie and Brick is the most important aspect and there is a central ambiguity about their feeling for one another that runs through the play, creating a will-they won’t-they tension that keeps the audience invested. But here that ambiguity is largely swept aside and instead focuses on Brick’s instance that their marriage is over. While it does give a harder edge to the performances and in some ways a fresh insight, it also divests their relationship of much of its heat, and like the set, makes it harder to believe that they exist beyond this room with a past and a future.
It’s important to stress that these are production decisions and not necessarily down to the performances. It’s clear that they want to offer a new interpretation and there are lots of great moments and interesting approaches that make you think twice, but the joy of Williams’s plays is the complexity of human experience that they offer and the way that unfolds in moments of extreme pressure under certain climatic conditions. Take some of those layers away and it just doesn’t quite ring true.
One of the most surprising and successful choices is to make Maggie a more grasping figure than often seen. Married into money Sienna Miller’s once poor Maggie talks rapidly and shamelessly to fill the huge void between her and Brick. Words run on and stories overlap with current family observations which Miller handles well in a first Act in which she has almost all the lines. This Maggie is not a sophisticated figure, but instead has a redneck-made-good quality, constantly betraying her origins in her stance and love of gossipy one-upmanship. Miller is an actor whose performances come with considerable expectation largely based on her private life, and while her accent is initially a little thick it becomes more settled as the show progresses, turning in a thoughtful and intriguing performance.
She’s determined to lure Brick back into her bed but it’s not clear whether this is for love or a possessiveness that will lead to her share of Big Daddy’s money. Miller’s Maggie certainly puts up a good fight, but in steering clear of Taylor, the show sacrifices Maggie’s sensuality and romance which dilutes the relationship with Brick and prevents any proper sympathy for her. It’s a rather cold seduction. Jack O’Connell initially gives little back as the detached Brick, worthy of his name. He is an oblique presence, purposefully excised from those around him with no desire for anything but drink.
O’Connell has some excellent moments in conversation with Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy in Act Two where Brick’s resolve is finally broken releasing a torrent of anger and self-abasement that hints at the impact this performance could have had elsewhere in the production, but the decision to make him impassive in the face of Maggie’s various attempts to provoke and allure him make it so much harder to really understand his purpose, and while O’Connell delivers a kind of nothingness, shutting down every avenue of reconciliation also leaves him nowhere to go in the rest of the production.
If Brick has no interest in Maggie then the psychology of their continued co-existence makes no sense, why wouldn’t he just leave her – a problem this production cannot resolve – and it prevents the growth of any sexual charge between them. A mistake this production makes repeatedly is in presenting both actors fully nude in several scenes (mostly O’Connell but occasionally Miller) in order to imply an eroticism that just doesn’t exist and O’Connell, hobbling on one crutch, is hampered by a towel he constantly has to re-tie during Act One, which could be easily resolved with some discrete Velcro. While fans may be delighted at the chance to see their idols in the raw, theatrically it serves no purpose without the character intent to support it – nudity is no substitute for chemistry.
There are great performances from the supporting cast which more successfully escape their screen incarnations. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy is a cruel and wearied figure, worn down by the constant disappointments of his family and frustration with the pointlessness of his wife. There’s genuine heartache for Lisa Palfrey’s tarty Big Mama whose natural bubbliness is deflated by the abusive bitterness of her husband. Hayley Squires gives Mae a protective family instinct with a tendency to catty competition with Maggie which is often quite funny, while Brian Gleeson’s Gooper makes the most of his one attempt to take control.
This is by no means a terrible production, there are plenty of good ideas, an attempt to present a new version of the play, and some genuinely insightful moments, but it’s not as good as it could be. This focus on the brash hardness that the lack of love creates in people rides roughshod over the moments of tenderness and intimacy in Williams’s writing that make his work so powerful. A large West End stage feels wrong for it and perhaps in the Young Vic’s more intimate space this could work a little better – especially where £35 will buy you one of the best views rather than a Grand Circle seat where you have to crane round people’s heads to see properly.
It needs that sense of a family living too close to each other, of a heatwave that drives its characters to extremes and a central couple whose passion for one another teeters constantly on the edge of love and hate. Benedict Andrews’s almost clinical production needs fire, and although it wants to distance you from the famous film, Newman and Taylor hang heavy over this production. That Tin Roof needs to be much hotter.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @cultralcap1