Tag Archives: American drama

Blues for an Alabama Sky – National Theatre

A lack of choice connects female stories across the ages as women find themselves hemmed in by a lack of opportunity, access to education and agency to determine their own path. Some of those structures are patriarchal, others economic and social, but all of them restrict and confine, ensuring women become something other than themselves. Looking across cultural representations of women in the past 100 years it is possible to draw connections between characters such as Hester Collier in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Patrick Hamilton’s Jenny from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, even up to Kyo Choi’s Kim Han-See in The Apology, all of whom are in pursuit of a fantasy life that will never be fulfilled. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, opening at the National Theatre this week, adds another unknowingly tragic heroine to that list, singer Angel who will grasp at an opportunity to get out of Harlem in 1930.

The concept of the American Dream and the extent to which it ever applied to women is something that Cleage explores in her play as every character pursues something beyond themselves, something better that will fundamentally alter the daily grind and transform them. Written in 1995, Cleage’s play draws heavily on the intimate boarding house and lodgings worlds of Rattigan and Hamilton in which urban, financially straightened lives are stacked together in densely packed neighbourhoods. And like these earlier works, Cleage emphasises the individual humanity and consequent value of the decent, hardworking community she depicts in a progressive piece that looks to personal attributes rather than limited religious and moral codes imposed by others to shape our responses to her cast.

Cleage sets the action primarily in a single two-room apartment over several weeks which becomes the focus of interaction between neighbours, lovers and friends navigating the next stage of their lives during the Great Depression. And Cleage quickly establishes a group of forward-looking dreamers, people seen as radical in quite different ways by their own community, sometimes dangerously so and not for the reasons we might expect. The context is constrictive and mundane – economic downturn, prohibition and high unemployment (symbolised by the lead characters losing their jobs at the start of the play) – but the lives within are nonetheless vibrant, full of possibility for bettering themselves and their local area while embracing the growing devotion to popular culture that provides a two folder escape – one in their imagination and one in reality.

Angel and her best friend Guy are characters whose dream life and real life could unite, bringing them both the recognition and glamour they crave. Guy’s work as a designer for cabaret and performance artists is sustained by the dream of working for Josephine Baker in Paris to whom he has an unexplained connection. But it drives his narrative, allowing him to indulge in the fantasy of working for her, which he cannot be swayed from, while practically working towards it with a job that puts him at the centre of a creative local scene of parties, drinking and affairs which simultaneously becomes a refuge from the daily grind. Angel meanwhile takes on work as a singer to support her dream of becoming a more famous singer. Yet her dream is compromised by an innate recognition that she will never achieve it, and instead pursues a course of survival that results in more questionable behaviour. Is Angel an inescapable and inevitable product of her gendered circumstances, Cleage askes, or does she actively sabotage herself to ensure those dreams always fail?

Throughout Blues for an Alabama Sky, Angel is a character with a notable duality. There is a deep vulnerability stemming from the knowledge that her body as much as her voice has sustained her, attracting a series of ‘gangsters’ and inappropriate men who only maintain a passing interest beyond the instant gratification of being her lover. And Angel actively seems to be looking for love, each encounter beginning with the hope that, like Sally Bowles, maybe this time it will work out. All of this pain makes Angel such a powerful blues singer, leaving the audience to hope that she will make it after all.

Like Rattigan’s Hester, Hamilton’s Jenny and indeed Isherwood’s Sally, Angel is under the illusion that she has choice, that she can direct and shape the future before her. Hester believes that if Freddy could just return her feelings with the same fervor, rendering all other difference between them immaterial, everything will be fine; Jenny is looking for the next man who can give her the material comforts she deserves and Sally too is looking for something real, that the next man will see her for the first time. Angel likewise falsely clings to the notion that traditional respectability – husband, family and home – will somehow snuff out all the other things she has had to do to achieve them, that if a man can love her enough, everything else will be insignificant, even her own desires. That each of these women is trapped into dependence on a man to rescue them is entirely a product of their society and the expectations placed on women to conform even when they are already living outside those structures. The tragedy comes from the failure of men to accept them and how decidedly that destroys their hopes.

A further tragedy in Angel’s character, and perhaps the most important moral point of Cleage’s work, is that Angel has gradations of selfishness that steal her happy ending, that she is prepared to stomp over anyone to get what she thinks she wants. In contrast to the behaviour of other characters, Angel uses people, lies and even betrays herself in order to become the potential wife that beau Leland may accept. And in the process she tears down her friend Guy in order to do it. These are survival techniques of a women with only herself to rely on, but in using her body to secure a different kind of status that she hopes will bring respectability and stability – regardless of his own questionable views – her body creates a response of its own, one which Angel coldly manages when a better opportunity presents itself.

Contrast this with Cleage’s parallel creation, Delia, Guy’s neighbour, who forms a counterpoint to the central pairing and in many ways is the pure heart of Blues for an Alabama Sky. Delia is a prototype for women’s rights, recognising the distressing lives of her community and prepared to face personal approbation and resistance by opening a Family Planning clinic. Though herself a virgin, as Guy discovers early on, Delia is an advocate of choice that will give women biological and economic freedom, and the play follows her progress through religious and medical objections, creating a character who is constructively forward-thinking and virtuous in her motives.

But Delia is given complexity through her growing attraction to local doctor Sam and her uncomplicated affection and acceptance of her neighbours. Non-judgmental, inclusive and encouraging, Delia experiences difficulty throughout the play quite differently to Angel and that treatment comes from character’s essential goodness and desire to contribute something beyond herself. The outcomes of the play, though tragic for the women in various ways, reflect a moral judgement by the writer who sets quite different paths for them both – Delia afforded true and reciprocated feeling that expands her emotional experience as a woman while Angel is left almost exactly where we found her; perhaps a little harder, more jaded but about to embark on the same destructive cycle.

The male characters by contrast are notably defined by their location, Guy and Sam products of Harlem while lover Leland bringing a darker cloud emanating from his Alabama moral and deeply Christian views that cause significant disruption within the group, shaping the plays central questions about appropriate ways to live. Men too are limited by their world and while it is perhaps too easy to suggest they suffer differently to women, Cleage looks at questions of masculinity and expectation in urban environments. That Guy represents a challenge to the traditional notions of manliness which Leland symbolises is one of Cleage’s most engaging themes as the two contend for a kind of primacy that manifests in a fight for Angel’s soul.

Guy is the kinder man which is reflected in Cleage’s perspective on female agency in the play, as he supports the development of his friend while Leland actively seeks to limit her. Sam likewise plays a role in facilitating Delia’s success, a meeting of minds that takes place in an enclosed but open-minded community where a modern morality and approach to sex, work and shared living finds itself hampered by traditional regulation and attitudes. Leland is the faultline along which these two worlds meet and collide, bringing dangerous but decisive consequences for the Harlem set.

The first half of the play is, by extension, very character and scenario focused, and while it establishes the narrative and motivational drivers, Cleage spends a long time setting-up the parameters in which the more traditional drama will then play out in the final third of the action, the pace of which Director Lynette Linton manages really well. Some may find it slow and ponderous while others will be fascinated by the ways in which Cleage constructs these lives and starts to draw the audience into their story, only realising in the final scenes how the long work of Act One created investment in the happiness and success of these neighbours, and how affectingly Cleage has created their circumstances and choices.

Samira Wiley captures all the contradictions in Angel’s character, the love of the party and that underlying fear that it is almost over for her that brings out a kind of desperation. Angel is deeply cynical, almost ground down in her belief that dreams don’t come true and the actor develops her pragmatic, sometimes cruel and headstrong side as she sets her sights on a more achievable outcome, all the while Wiley’s maintains Angel’s refusal to accept this is not what she truly wants. Ronke Adekoluejo’s Delia is a complete contrast with plenty of contradictions that help to make the character more rounded. Adekoluejo makes her shy and determined, innocent but knowledgeable about the medical needs of women, radical in her vision for the community and acceptance of others but looking for a traditional loving relationship, all of which Adekoluejo makes relatable and credible.

Giles Terera has a very busy rep season ahead, rehearsing the leading role in Othello opening in November as well as playing the flamboyant Guy here. Terera’s sensitive performance is very smart, taking a character who lives a bigger life than the others, filled with showbusiness parties and aspirations but still making him vulnerable, grounded and loyal to the people he cares about. There are some great scenes with Osy Ikhile’s Leland as the two men prowl around one another, subtly glaring as their very different outlooks clash, while Sule Rimi places Sam somewhere between the two, rational about the everyday needs of his patients but equally drawn to the possibility of finally meeting someone to share with it.

Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s superb rotating house set, which echoes Tom Scutt’s excellent semi-translucent design for the 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea, it creates a sense of lives packed in and overlapping. Blues for an Alabama Sky has much to say about the price of giving up on a dream and why it is often a woman who has to compromise. All of Angel’s choices are ultimately taken from her and while others may find a different future at the end of the play, like Hester, Jenny and Sally, Angel can never be anything else.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is at the National Theatre until 5 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Woods-Southwark Playhouse

In the same month two plays have opened in London both 90-minutes long and both using the same analogy for the knotty complexities of love and relationships with both culminating in some form of male violence. But while the world premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Forest at Hampstead Theatre used its allegorical title well, capturing the sudden density of circumstances as protagonist Pierre becomes increasingly lost in the mess he may have created, Southwark Playhouse’s revival of David Mamet’s The Woods only ever skims across the surface of characters Ruth and Nick in a talky drama that fails to say very much.

Written in 1977, the play received a mauling when it opened in New York a couple of years later and during the 1980s further performances were banned by the writer. It hasn’t been seen in the UK for over 20-years and it seems a curious decision to revive it now despite its attempts to engage with notions of sexual politics and the desire for a cleaner, simpler country lifestyle that many craved during the pandemic. Yet, The Woods feels decidedly old-fashioned in style and structure, using its characters as ciphers for Mamet’s abstract conclusions about relationships between men and women.

Mamet’s very best work focuses entirely on masculinity and the sometimes toxic competitiveness that exists between them particularly in capitalist environments. Glengarry Glen Ross remains a modern classic with a West End revival and tour directed by Sam Yates reminding us what a crisp and skewering writer Mamet could be. Similarly a 2015 production of American Buffalo with Damian Lewis and John Goodman was equally insightful about the egotism of men in a small junk shop grappling with their need for space and recognition. But Mamet has been on far shakier ground with female characters some of whose depictions have been laced with misogyny – the tasteless comedy of Bitter Wheat a case in point.

The Woods is a puzzling piece, naturalistic in setting but frustratingly elusive in purpose with thinly drawn characters who talk in bold phrases but never reveal a single personal thing about themselves or their lives, making it hard to believe in them as real people and even harder to care about a single thing they say or do. Ostensibly an Adam and Eve metaphor, Ruth and Nick are taken on a troubling path through the story, a relationship deteriorating in microcosm in the space of one night.

Mamet greatly admired and even wrote to Harold Pinter so throughout The Woods you can see Mamet feeling for that same kind of abstracted otherness, trying to reach a similar place where reality shifts very slightly to create a heightened intensity where ominous overtones of threat or danger shape the plot. That Mamet doesn’t get anywhere near the tonal precision and linguistic specificity of Pinter is the great tragedy of The Woods and make it an unsatisfactory experience.

Part of the issue is the very literal staging the story demands, set on the porch of a cabin in a very visible, tangible wood. It creates the feel for nature that peppers the text, referencing various creatures the couple see but unlike Zeller’s treeless The Forest designed by Anna Fleischle, Mamet’s play in comparison feels too heavy-handed, hammering home the metaphor of relationships being like a forest by setting the story in a real wood. A more representative hinterland could have drawn out those Pinter-esque tonal shifts but even in Russell Bolam’s new production for the Southwark Playhouse, Anthony Lamble’s otherwise pleasant log shack feels far too literal for the unnatural dialogue.

Mamet gives us nothing at all to go on when it comes to introducing Ruth and Nick to the audience; we learn little about them as individuals, not how long they have been together, what either of them do in the mythical ‘city’ they refer to or how they met. They never mention friends they have in common, they have no hobbies or interests other than going for walks, sex or holding each other, suggestions which recur throughout the play, and the factual basis for their existence is entirely withheld, leaving the audience to form an understanding of who they are only from the things they say.

However, both characters talk in repetitively bland, almost entirely meaningless phrases about the difficulties of self-knowledge, proclamations about how ‘clean’ the air is in the country, the cawing of gulls and vagaries about their feelings for one another. The first Act primarily establishes their seemingly unequal love and investment in their relationship, an emotional connection that is almost constantly spoken about by Ruth who spends much of this initial scene reassuring Nick of his sexual allure, skittering between stories connected to the woods including a Martian visit and war service and Ruth’s constant, almost possessive need to touch Nick.

There are hints, even here, that Nick is stereotypically afraid of commitment, not recoiling from Ruth but detached and less willing to discuss his feelings or even finding any obvious enjoyment in being at his cabin with her. By Act Two set late the same night, that frustration has expanded as a somewhat laboured, storm approaches which reveals Nick’s fear, resulting in what seems to be a clear sexual assault although this is not how Ruth reacts to it. With an ensuing conversation about other partners that Nick has brought to the cabin, Mamet treads a gendered line in which his archetypal male protagonist either wants sex or to be left in peace while his female avatar talks of love and commitment while actively encouraging the sexual bravura of her partner, even reassuring him after he attacks her.

The result is a confusing piece that builds to moments of violence which it is then overly casual about. Ruth fights back and threatens to leave, even going so far as packing her bags, but Mamet makes this feel part of the game, the audience and the central couple knowing that there is more to come and drastically undermining her surface decisiveness. But there is nothing underneath and The Woods feels like a series of empty gestures that offer-up a plot of sorts with no emotional basis for either character’s behaviour or as a way to demarcate the power shifts that happen along the way, leaving the once strong and silent Nick strangely infantilised. How and why is rooted in morning-after guilt but there is so little credibility in the picture Mamet has painted that the audience cannot grasp why the fate of these characters, shackled together for a brutal eternity in the woods, is a symbol of whatever point Mamet is making about relationships. And given his recent comments in The Guardian that the natural urge in men is for sex and in women to have babies, this is not a particularly nuanced understanding of gender.

Bolam’s production for Southwark Playhouse doesn’t really resolve any of these ambiguities or issues within the text and suffers as a result. There is an attempt to give Ruth greater agency and control of her body than the play allows through moments of reaction and a firmer, more controlled tone to her speeches, but despite flashes of intensity between the warring pair, the play’s shortcomings cannot be concealed. It is a small, intimate space that should be filled with the play’s emotional contortions but lacking those Bolam uses the porch front and small area of garden to move the actors around as much as possible, making dizzying use of the space as they march infeasibly from bench to tree stump to cabin trying to inject some physical energy into a lacklustre debate.

There is notably very little music even between scenes, only soundscaping designed Ali Taie who provides woodland sounds and some low thrumming in the blackouts between the Acts. However, with so little atmosphere in Mamet’s text, the prudent use of composition might have been helpful in setting the scene or representing the darkening tone as the mood shifts, and it seems a shame not to have used more sound, even thunder to match Bethany Gupwell’s lightening, to lift the piece and it give it a bit of drive.

Francesca Carpanini does what she can with Ruth and probably has the best of it in terms of giving the character what little purpose exists for her in the script. And although the cadence of her American accent means the delivery becomes a little samey, Ruth moves from being annoyingly affectionate, overly tactile and almost smothering to a more forceful partner unwilling to easily concede to Nick’s demanding behaviour. Carpanini gives Ruth as much emotional complexity as she can given the two-dimensional characterisation but it becomes increasingly interesting to watch her transition from romantic idyll to grubby brawl as the story moves on.

Sam Frenchum has almost no room for manoeuvre with Nick who becomes increasingly less sympathetic. There are lots of loose ends that Mamet never resolves including a recurring dream about a bear, trouble sleeping and a seemingly equal distaste for town and country that plague Nick, nor are there any explanations or remorse for his acts of aggression that violate his girlfriend so Frenchum has an uphill battle to keep the audience interested in Nick for 90-minutes. He does and that is to Frenchum’s credit but its a thankless task.

There are plenty of plays that chart the rapid decline of romantic and other relationships in just a few hours and many of them like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or God of Carnage do it much better than The Woods. Advertised as a ‘battle of the sexes’ play, it’s not nearly as light or as entertaining as that phrase suggests. With stylised dialogue, questionable gender politics and a too literal setting, The Woods gets rather lost in itself, and with very few contemporary insights to offer, it’s a wonder that Mamet’s duologue has been revived at all.

The Woods is at the Southwark Playhouse until 26 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

‘night Mother – Hampstead Theatre

Night Mother - Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatres continues its trip down memory lane with Marsha Norman’s two-hander ‘night Mother which had its UK premiere at the venue in 1985, and it’s fascinating over 35 years later to see a play that has the courage of its convictions, a drama that stays true to its characters with no soapy or simplistic conclusion that would betray its purpose. Instead, it holds the line to offer a female-focused narrative about mental health and suicide that feels incredibly modern, slowly unfolding its depth and, eventually, a great poignancy. Roxana Silbert’s production finds a calm authority in its central character, a women who knows without fuss or melodrama, that this will be her last night alive.

Running at around 80-minutes and playing in real time, ‘night Mother is one continual Act with no scene breaks or pauses just a rolling conversation between a mother and daughter focused on the past and the future, taking place in a single room, a combined living room and kitchen in a detached house in rural America. It’s a physical space in which the characters can busy themselves with domestic chores that Norman uses as surface distractions for Thelma and Jessie, allowing them to talk more openly while giving their hands and brains some practical tasks to perform.

But these activities are also Norman’s milestones or dramatic markers that signify directional change in the discussion as well as points of no return for Jessie who spends this time striking these items from her to do list, each one moving her closer to the end she craves. The action, therefore, becomes a cumulative process of ending, a rounding off or settling of accounts in which Jessie uses refilling the sweet jars, replacing the sofa cover or cleaning the fridge as a signals that she has provided a tidy legacy for her mother in the aftermath of Jessie’s death, each task a stepping stone to what is to Jessie an inevitable and irrecoverable conclusion.

That Norman stages her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in this very domestic environment is extremely pointed, placing within it two generations of women with very different outlooks and opportunities. Thelma has been a housewife all her adult life, content to take things as they come and accept the world as it exists, finding comfort and enjoyment in her family, gossip about the neighbours, crochet and television, all the things the made up the lives of her generation in 1985. Yet, offered exactly the same things – a husband and son – Jessie is repelled by the same circumstances, and while never overtly stated, Norman hints that female liberation of which Jessie would have been one of the first to benefit from birth has done more to confine her than her mother’s more traditional experience in the past 40 years.

Something about Jessie’s life just doesn’t fit, and the things her mother can live for are not enough to sustain the daughter. The promise of love and children has disappointed her, and yet Norman never offers any suggestion that Jessie had the chance of independence in her youth through career, friends or agency, implying these avenues were always closed to her. What is left out of Jessie’s story is almost as important as the details Norman shares with the audience, helping to create a context in which this woman sees only one possible outcome. That this last night is filled with traditional domestic chores is deliberate, a place where both women ended-up but with acres of space between their opposing responses to its strictures.

And Norman proffers two contrasting forms of domestic act, the routine and everyday requirements of sustenance and cleanliness, and the maternal acts of care that are couched in memories of childhood treats. That both Thelma and Jessie perform these acts gives depth and shape to the play, while Norman adds intrigue by changing the purpose of character actions as they are received. In one rare moment in the play, Thelma takes charge, preparing a pan of hot chocolate at Jessie’s request as a final nod to the mother-daughter relationship that once existed between them, almost an echo from the past. Except in the present it has soured, and the moment of proximity they crave in carrying-out this forgotten ritual results in failure because tastes and personalities have shifted. What was Thelma’s maternal act of kindness to her daughter is undercut by their mutual reaction to it which is not at all what they remember and Norman uses this to add layers to their complex relationship.

Likewise, for much of the play, it is Jessie who adopts the mother-provider role, she is replenishing, cleaning and giving clear instruction to Thelma on where things are kept, what she should do next and how the household should be organised which creates a dependency in her mother that is both emotional and physical, relying on Jessie to keep the home in domestic order. But is Jessie acting out of love, obligation or some other motive? Silberg’s production for the Hampstead Theatre suggests the latter options, that there is no real affection or understanding between the women, and it may never have existed, so although Jessie wants to think she’s leaving her mother well provided for, her ministrations are partially to allay her own conscience and reduce any criticism from her brother and sister-in-law, but instead the systematic performance of these tasks are carried out primarily to focus her own determination, to create a roadmap for this final 80-minutes that will occupy her until the time is right.

That this is a suicide story is clear from the beginning and Norman never deviates from an ending her protagonist is open about, announcing it in the first minutes of the play and one she is quietly determined to reach. Despite the conversation that unfolds, the revelations and home truths that emerge, even a spot of pleading, ‘night Mother is admirably never swayed from that outcome. We see this all too rarely in modern drama and instead women are often dissuaded from their rational choices at the eleventh hour by a romantic sensibility, a prudish morality or the need for an unrealistic happy ending (often resulting in a woman giving up control of her choices or her body), so Norman’s treatment of Jessie as a woman who has made a clear-headed decision about her life and her body, weighed-up all the options available to her and quite coolly puts her plan into action, is respectful, and a model for how female characters can be constructed.

The introduction of absent male characters, Thelma’s husband as well as Jessie’s husband and son, creates some interesting parallels between the two women, exploring the mutual failure of their marriages and its impact on the women’s ability to shape and direct their lives. In fact, it reinforces the approach that Norman has taken to her female characters, Thelma largely at ease with the loveless marriage she endured, although in this Hampstead production there are hints of resentment when she speaks of him, while the more emotionally open Jessie has deep feeling for all three men, enjoying and suffering from fuller relationships that have societally left her in the same single state as her mother but have ultimately brought her very little joy or peace of mind.

The crucial connection is with Jessie’s father and, like Alice Birch’s fascinating Anatomy of a Suicide, there is a subtle thread here about inherited suicide, a strand that gets to the heart of the troubled relationship between Jessie and Thelma which stretches back to childhood when her father was the preferred parent despite his faults. Norman is also subtle in presenting the circumstances of his death, there are hints he may have taken his own life following a series of seizures that have similarly plagued his daughter, and what connection there might be between the outcome for these characters, Norman leaves the audience to suppose. At the very least, it adds greater context to Thelma’s behaviour as the past repeats itself and she is, once again, powerless to prevent it.

Jessie is an interesting character to pitch, and Rebecca Night opts for clarity of thought and a decisiveness that apply as much to the management of household tasks as to the arrangements for her final evening. The text suggests Jessie is in one of her brighter phases which Night builds on in the early part of this duologue to give momentum and authority to the character, which also offers the audience and Thelma some hope that Jessie will change her mind. As the revelations unfold and we come to learn more about Jessie’s longer-term depression and struggles, Night creates space for emotional connections to family, memory and the hopes she once had some of which become very affecting. But that certainty of purpose never wavers even as the conversation loops and flounders, and it sits beneath every aspect of Night’s presentation of Jessie and it is what makes her such a rare and interesting creation.

It’s great to see Stockard Channing back on the London stage following Apologia in 2017, and although ‘night Mother is a similar American family story, Thelma is a far more ambiguous character to play. Channing places her somewhere between a wishful co-dependence with her daughter and a far more independent personality than Thelma is prepared to admit to herself. There is neediness and fear in the mix with a little bitterness about the repeated abandonment that sometimes plays out as a sulky destructiveness, but she knows the connection with Jessie is damaged beyond repair so Channing has Thelma almost stand back and let events play out with occasional half-hearted appeals to delay. In other hands, Thelma could be more fragile, a Tennessee Williams mother-figure lost in her own world and while Channing momentarily lingers here, like Jessie, there is also an underlying strength, that she has found the secret to coping with her life, leaving a lasting knowledge that she will be just fine tomorrow.

Staged by Ti Green, this production retains its original 1980s setting – a feature of all of the Hampstead reopening productions – but is never overt in its presentation of the decade. The design choices are more timeless, suggesting a much lived-in home with accents from the 50s onwards that imply an accumulated family life over many decades while aspects of it start to look a little rundown. But it is also a single storey country place, so Green uses wood for the flooring and surfaces to suggest what may once have been a small, timber farm or ranch house with a sense of limited rooms beyond and a tight-knit, claustrophobic community outside.

With a few performances ahead of press night later this week, the building chemistry between the actors can only grow which will help with establishment in the early scenes and those marked directional shifts in discussion and theme. But in Silbert’s staging, the ending is already powerful, making Norman’s 40-year old Pulitzer-winning play feel bold and purposeful.

‘night Mother is at the Hampstead Theatre until 4 December with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Curve Leicester

Regional theatre was given a whole new market thanks to the opportunities created by digital streaming during the last 18-months, leading the way on audience engagement and the innovative development of filming techniques that made watching shows from home increasingly enjoyable and immersive. Now, it’s our turn to give back, taking the chance to support these reopened venues with in-person visits to theatres that made the London-centric sit up and finally take notice. With gripping screen-only productions of The Colour Purple and a particularly transformative Sunset Boulevard, the lure of Curve Leicester is increasingly irresistible.

The reason for this long overdue attendance, a searing production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the small studio space that absolutely burns with the fire and fury that the playwright built into this towering drama. Tight as a drum and thrumming with palpable tension, Anthony Almeida’s production, premiering at Curve before the English Touring Theatre take it to several other venues, is ferocious, a magnificent adaptation that follows other recent approaches to Williams by modernising the setting and focusing on the complex emotional intensity as a family combusts in front of us.

Previous attempts to place Williams’s work in a more contemporary or at least timeless setting have had mixed results; the Young Vic worked its magic with a 2014 version of A Streetcar Named Desire gratefully broadcast by National Theatre at Home last year, the Almeida too with that defining production of Summer and Smoke that did so much to revive the immediate potency of Williams’s emotional excavation. More recently, Hampstead Theatre’s pandemic-delayed version of The Two Character Play incorporated plenty of modern tricks and techniques but failed to lift this difficult work, while the most recent West End version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Benedict Andrews with a starry cast was a sorry, cold and lustless affair that confused nudity with chemistry.

So, Almeida’s production for Curve is an interesting lesson in how to take a beloved classic play, really strip it back to its essential characteristics using minimal staging and still hold on to all of the complex emotional currents, changes of direction and the bubbling tension that make it worth revisiting. There is, crucially, real danger here, it absolutely bristles with confrontational energy, that once-in-a-lifetime truth-telling session for the Pollitt family that was somehow inevitable but long delayed, as characters buried their feelings or hid from the truths they cannot bear to face. What Almeida brings to this revival is that feeling that its now or never for these people and once the storm plays out, everyone’s outlook will be forever different.

Because this is a play about the fight, everyone has an agenda, they all need something, a clarity that relies on someone else noticing them or being honest about what’s going on. And the audience sees, particularly in the stonking first half and the early part of the second, is that this is really high stakes stuff, and while Williams holds back some of the cards for later scenes, we come to realise that everyone has everything on the line on this fateful night that Almeida’s production rather gloriously brings to life.

And across the 2.5 hours of this story, there is very little relief, plunging the audience immediately into the marital troubles of Maggie and Brick and thereon holding our attention with an iron grip. Even the sudden interval which comes in the middle of the intensive and combative duologue between Brick and Dig Daddy gives little pause, leaving characters on stage before jumping right back into this full-throttle encounter without missing a beat – it is an extraordinary feat for the actors and demands an instant hush from an audience resettling after the break.

What this Curve and ETT revival does so well is to delineate the individual trajectories, opening with a forensic skill the wants of each character while still creating a consistent family dynamic – albeit a relatively dysfunctional one – and you believe in all of their ways of being. Williams, of course, shines the brightest spotlight on the central couple kept apart by sexual jealousy, resentment and self-loathing, inspired and fuelled by Brick’s alcoholism. Here, we are shown their parallel tracks as Maggie tries desperately to bring their paths back together. She is fighting for her marriage and a remembrance of the man she loved. It is a furious, desperate, scrappy business for her using every bit of her armoury from her body to various means of manipulation to get what she wants. Brick, by contrast, and arguably unrecognised by his wife, is actually fighting for his life, even more so than Big Daddy, almost letting it slip away but clinging to fragments of his own memories – the man he was, his athletic prowess and friendship. There are snatches when he looks at Maggie with something like his old feeling for her, amused, impressed, even proud of her resilience and determination.

Likewise, the relationship between Big Mama and Big Daddy feels crueller than ever, his lack of sympathy and bullying a clear template for his sons and their struggle to connect with or impress him. The volcanic rage he directs at everyone very occasionally appears in his sons while his wife silently accepts his bitter diatribes while trying to find comfort in noise, knowledge and the family she has endured so much to create and sustain. But she has strength too, a refusal to bend or break whatever direction the wind is coming from, quietly holding it all together. Meanwhile the obsequious Gooper and Mae seem far more sinister than previous productions, a pretence of happiness designed to sell Big Daddy a dream and reward them with his millions. The switch from kindness to cold, hard business in the penultimate scene is, therefore, rather chilling.

In staging this production, designer Rosanna Vize creates a simple but evocative space filled with places for characters to listen-in on each other’s conversations – a key theme in the play that contributes to the tight claustrophobic experience that Williams generates and so unnerves the protagonists. Initially played through a gauzy circular curtain surrounding Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, the hazy focus responds to their mismatched view of each other while creating a seductive feel to the their passionate opening conversation. The intrusion of other characters, Mae in particular who draws the curtain back, cuts through all of this to remove the filter, presaging what will become a night of revelation.

The combination of design and lighting creates an intense central playing space which seamlessly becomes the various locations. A raised edge doubles for the eavesdroppers’ balconies and Almeida uses these areas to emphasis moments of particular tension, silently lining-up the usually off-stage or unseen characters who observe the action, placing further pressure on the speakers who struggle to be honest without privacy, while continually drawing attention to the complex network of family and neighbours whose lives so completely intersect. It is notable that the church and medical profession are represented as the outside-insiders who become part of this household tonight but represent death and damnation that hangs over the Pollitts as their crisis ripens.

The staging, then, becomes both narratively functional and representational, allowing Almeida to create drive and drama in this soulless space of opaque materials and emptiness, but at the same time fill it with the emotional baggage and vast landscapes of Williams’s creations. Occasionally, the symbolism goes too far asking the audience to imagine phones that don’t exist or the cashmere robe Big Daddy is given for his birthday, but unlike Andrews’s interpretation whose windowless luxury sucked the soul from the drama, Almeida finds a wonderful and utterly compelling harmony within these contrasting elements, unleashing the very great power in one of Williams’s finest work and, with Joshua Gadsby’s lighting, create pace and evocative stage pictures that illuminate the work anew.

This production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also owes much to its cast who find depth and resonance in their character to give them fresh appeal. Siena Kelly’s Maggie is both tenacious and vulnerable, driven by a need to make her marriage work that goes beyond the humiliation of failure to some almost romantic concept of destiny. But Kelly’s Maggie is an earthy creature, a woman open about her mistakes and failures but also her desires. Kelly carries herself so particularly, using her body and knowing its value as a communication tool, dressed in sensuous fabrics and prepared to grapple in the dust, pay whatever price and do whatever it takes to bend this family towards her.

Oliver Johnstone has been one to watch for some time with notable performances in the RSC’s Imperium and Cymbeline as well as All My Sons for the Old Vic. Here he gives his best performance yet as a deeply troubled and broken Brick Pollitt. There is such a desperate sorrow in Johnstone’s approach as his Brick becomes slowly more inebriated. But rightly, it never makes him pitiable or too empathetic. A character bent on his own destruction, there is a huge range here, disillusion turning to fury to amusement and attraction, despair, cruelty, disregard and even a hint of affection for his nephews that betrays his own desire for children, the chance that he and Maggie may really want the same thing after all. Johnstone holds the characterisation throughout, entirely immersed in the role, always reacting, responding or lost in Brick’s pain as he searches for release.

Peter Forbes as Big Daddy is equally strong, a self-made man who betrays his roots when a brush with death makes him vulnerable, something that manifests in his ebullience and need to re-establish control, making him a powerful and glowering presence while trying, like everyone else, to make sense of his life and its future direction. As Big Mama, Teresa Banham has less stage time as the men hammer-out their problems but the portrait of her marriage is vivid and while she may not have Maggie’s openness, Banham suggests a woman fighting in her own way for status and notice as a house full of domineering men consume all of the oxygen.

Curve Leicester is pushing boundaries with this version of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, combining a chic visual aesthetic that supports a deeply reflective take on a play that continues to yield new insights and surprises. Like Chichester with their divine South Pacific, this bold production at Curve Leicester shows that regional theatres have been quick off the starting blocks with imaginative and smart new work that, even accounting for the train ticket, costs less than a top West End seat. Having enjoyed several virtual visits during lockdown, a live one was long overdue and hugely rewarding.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at Curve Leicester until 18 September before a UK tour. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Two Character Play – Hampstead Theatre

The Two Character Play - Hampstead Theare (by Marc Brenner)

Described by the author as the most beautiful play he had written since A Streetcar Named Desire, the London premiere of The Two Character Play in 1967 left Tennessee Williams in a fit of despair in what was one of the playwright’s darkest periods. Although rewritten for its first American outing in 1971, its remains a rarely performed piece and one of Williams’s most challenging, claustrophobic works. Sam Yates offers a fresh interpretation now back where it all began at the Hampstead Theatre to conclude a season of work celebrating notable plays like The Dumb Waiter and Death of a Black Man that debuted at the venue.

We think we know Tennessee Williams both on and off the stage – the alcoholic writer with an intense lifestyle who ploughed his troubled family relationships into the heart of his work, and biographers love nothing more than drawing parallels between Williams’s sister and the fragile Laura in The Glass Menagerie or the dominance of his mother in every singsong Southern belle. His work, we think, is full of tension, heat, bubbling resentments and family spats that finally, decisively boil over as the rains eventually come to wash away all that mendacity, leaving raw emotional truth in its place.

Yet the work produced in London in recent years has sought to look beyond these surface impressions of Williams’s plays and the rotating triumvirate of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that have entirely defined his work, to demonstrate the different kinds of writer he could be. And this revival of The Two Character Play follows Rebecca Frecknell’s celebrated Summer and Smoke that properly kick-started a reappraisal and mining of Williams’s lesser-known plays, followed by the King’s Head Theatre’s Southern Belles, two one act pieces in which the writer openly considers identity, sexuality and violence contrasting the city and country living.

The Two Character Play is in some ways a typical Williams piece, a brother and sister pairing, chained together eternally and finding the real world an unbearable place to be. They seek escape from the confines of their lives but simultaneously rely on the familiarity of their routines to maintain their stability while their permanent performance is a classic Williams trope in which characters adopt a public face either shamed or unsure of their own.

Yet this play is also like nothing else he wrote, a collection of grotesques in an almost Beckettian hinterland waiting for something to end and Williams is clearly influenced by the rise and structure of absurdist forms which affects not just the sharpened interplay between Felice and Clare but also the void-like existence of the play itself. Like Hamm and Clov in Endgame, the audience is given no sense that any reality exists beyond that created for and between the siblings and unlike his memory plays or the emotional and bodily realism of his more famous works, the context for The Two Character Play comes from its hall of mirrors approach in which the protagonists perform their own play for what we are told is a theatre audience.

For anyone more used to seeing traditional approaches to Williams, then this play may feel somewhat strange and deliberately disorientating as Williams moves the action continually from the backstage relationship to the brother-sister story dramatised in front of the curtain with the boundary increasingly blurred between these worlds This first happens as the play itself starts to go wrong, when Clare’s mutinous behaviour slices through the story and then in the close alignment between the lonely pair dealing with the legacy of their parents’ relationship, unable to leave their house, and the possibly contiguous backstory for Clare and Felice who find themselves unable to leave the theatre.

While characters often feel isolated and even lonely in Williams’s plays largely resulting from a lack of sexual love, there is abandonment in The Two Character Play of quite a different kind as children learn to face an existence without parents who have by circumstance or deliberate choice left brother and sister to care for one another. Whether its rejection, desertion or even renunciation – leaving open the possibility that the children rather than the parents are beyond help – there are depths of betrayal that seep through every scene and fundamentally damage any form of rational relationship with other people.

At the beginning of the play Felice must tell his sister that the entire Theatre Company has left the tour and the decision to perform to the audience regardless is the motor of The Two Character Play, something Felice chooses from his own repertoire as it can be performed (somewhat chaotically) without help. This mirrors the plight of the characters in Felice’s drama who feel confounded by the contempt of the townspeople and are left to themselves, even receiving food deliveries from behind a closed door. This lack of external human contact in both scenarios only increases the disorientating effect Williams creates and the heightened delusions of all four creations where reality becomes something that is described like a faded memory but never experienced.

All of these theatrical devices can feel quite alienating in a play that is ultimately rather circular in that by the end nothing has really changed except that Felice’s two-character play has been performed to a real or imagined audience depending on your perspective. Yates’s production for the Hampstead Theatre amplifies that estrangement, eschewing a period setting to adopt a variety of technical tricks that underscore the performative nature of these creations.

Designer Rosanna Vize has created a ramshackle backstage / on-stage area, a deconstructed set that serves as a multi-playing space in which the various sides of Felice and Clare can interact. Alone, they must construct the small domestic home used for their play by physically dragging walls and furniture into position, while around them the detritus of their ‘real’ lives in bin bags of clothes, random pieces of furniture and spotlights the pair can use to play and to create.

But the real separation from other Williams adaptations come in the use of technology. Borrowing a little from Jamie Lloyd and a little from Ivo van Hove, Yates employs a video camera to capture ‘unofficial’ moments between the siblings but shots deliberately set-up by one or other of them and projected onto the rear wall of the stage to emphasise their eternal performance – even as themselves they appear to be adopting affected behaviours or personas that prevents them from finding real truth in their relationship. Similarly, freestanding microphones are used to deliver parts of the backstage sections – see Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull – which only increases Felice and Clare’s self absorption and total dislocation from anything but their own form of reality.

It is interesting work from video designer Akhila Krishnan and sound designer Dan Balfour who together with Vize create a space that is filled with the apparatus of storytelling and the possibility of escape to other places using these tools, but a place that Clare states, ‘so it’s a prison, this last theatre of ours’. Williams specifies a broken space which this Hampstead production delivers, teetering on the edge of both interpretations of the play, just enough reality to suggest a theatre yet sufficient emptiness to imply a no man’s land with nothing but silence and darkness beyond its walls.

It makes the production intriguing if not entirely satisfying. Partly this is Williams’s own experimentation with theatrical form, layering these parallel and intersecting narratives in such a way that the engineering is almost more notable that the play itself, and certainly Williams makes no attempt to encourage pathos in our experience of these characters. As elaborate and deserving of censure as some of his earlier creations had been, there is always great tragedy in their delusion and although Blanche or Brick behave inappropriately, Williams finds sympathy for their plight. But not so with Clare and Felice, we observe them but we do not feel for them.

Yates heightens some of this detachment, partly with the equipment that hones in on their absurdity if not their souls and partly in the tone he selects for the two interlocking aspects of the narrative. The play-within-a-play is purposefully and effectively exaggerated, adopting the traditional Southern accents we expect from a Williams piece and making the homespun scenario knowingly poor, as though Clare and Felice are substandard actors going through the motions. The backstage sections have greater melodrama to draw out the monstrous Whatever Happened to Baby Jane qualities of these eternal duelists enjoying their game-playing cruelties.

Kate O’Flynn’s Clare is a rather remote figure, fragile of course as Williams’s heroines tend to be, but also certain of herself, a strong-minded woman with expectations befitting – at least in her own consideration – her rank as lead actor in the touring company. There is something of the diva about Clare, certainly a distorted image of herself but Williams jumbles this up with sibling rivalry, the make-believe world that she permanently cohabits with Felice and a deep, almost pathological fear of being alone. O’Flynn finds all of these nuances and while we’re never asked to understand or even really to believe in Clare, there are plenty of layers in this performance.

Likewise Zubin Varla – so recently seen in a rehearsed reading of Name, Place, Animal, Thing – brings his usual gravitas to Felice, a creation with a tendency to fuss and flap as he multitasks as actor, director and wearied stage manager for the company. Much of his anguish comes from preparing for his sister and ensuring the conditions are set for her performance with Varla onstage while the audience take their seats. But there is a similar monstrous ego at play, and Felice’s evident resentment that his play is being cut pits the siblings against each other in a complex battle of wills that is mutually destructive and supportive.

Yates’s production of The Two Character Play is quite busy with lots of activities, movements and techniques applied to almost every moment, mixing straight-forward and heightened realities with a full staging, the stripped back emphasis that microphones bring, video footage and cinematic influences in visuals and lighting denoting melodrama and occasionally noir. This is a writer experimenting with different forms and while it is hard to agree with Williams’s own assessment that The Two Character Play is an equal of Streetcar, this rare revival proves an interesting addition to works that reassess Williams’s impact as a dramatists – an intellectual exercise if not an emotive one.

The Two Character Play is at Hampstead Theatre until 28 August with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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