The Night of the Iguana rounds off what has been a fascinating mini season of American drama in London in which the lesser known works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams have appeared alongside and been treated with the same reverence as their most famous plays. Williams in particular is rarely out of fashion and recent productions have shed new light on the depth and quality of his writing. The Glass Menagerie transferred from Watford Palace to the Arcola Theatre, recasting the struggling Wingfields as an African-American family while at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Theatre Clywd’s vibrant production of Orpheus Descending breathed life into this underappreciated work.
Fringe and regional theatre is in love with Tennesse Williams at the moment, a further one-act double bill to come at the King’s Head Theatre as part of its Southern Belles season later this month, but there’s also a big West End revival this summer that’s not be missed. The Noel Coward Theatre has lured Clive Owen back to the stage for the first time in 18 years to play another messed-up character called Larry in The Night Of the Iguana, often described as Williams’s “last great play” based on his own short-story written in 1946.
Williams brings together an assorted collection of personalities who under normal circumstances would never form a connection and only through travel can ever really be thrown together in such an intimate setting; Larry Shannon the feverish former-priest turned tour guide stricken with panic attacks, the sexually predatory widow Maxine Faulk who owns the hotel, Hannah Jelkes the sedate New England artist and her verse-writing grandfather Nonno trying to write his final poem, all set for collision course as a physical and emotional storm brews between them.
Described by the playwright as a story about “how to live beyond despair and still live”, there is a sense in James Macdonald’s production of various strands coming to an end, of the conclusion of a particular chapter in the characters’ lives as they arrive at the ramshackle Mexican hotel on the hill. By the conclusion of the play the life they have known before will have ended, and a new (not necessarily) better phase will begin. This focus on endings is multi-various, it is the end of the holiday season in Mexico where Maxine’s former life has ended with the death of her much-older husband Frank. When Larry appears at the “end of his rope” what follows explores the end of road for him in particular as he experiences the end of both his faith and his desire.
Through these various interconnections Williams’s concept of spiritual endings plays out across the story using the idea that both sex and religion can be a salvation as well as the ultimate destructive force. So, like the captured iguana of the title, there is a contained wildness in all of these characters who in this transitory place away from their real lives will come to a kind of reckoning within themselves and because of themselves. Macdonald’s production brings an intense slow-burn effect to the competing forces of life and death that drive the play, giving Williams time to weave his magic and the result is compelling and satisfying.
There are plenty of plays that never justify a three-hour runtime, but James Macdonald’s production has an enthralling quality that keeps momentum in a story with relatively little plot, most of which remains in the background as different conversations slowly reveal the backstories and viewpoint of the guests, focusing on a faltering and unlikely connection between polar opposites Larry and Hannah. But through these repeatedly broken conversations, interrupted by the encroaching outside world of passing tourists, Larry’s busload of angry passengers and the natural environment, Macdonald draws out strands of loneliness and isolation for two people entering middle age, losing the freedom of their youth and living unmarried beyond normal social expectations.
An experienced director of American drama who’s worked extensively on Broadway, Macdonald knows well how to marshal these long discursive plays. As with Annie Baker’s John and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – both of which Macdonald has directed in the UK in the last two years – he is particularly attuned to the subtle changes of tone in the writing that slowly reposition the emotional direction of a scene, knowing precisely when and how to emphasise the small crescendos of drama and subsequent calm in each Act, building the layers to create a powerful and climatic overall effect that changes the characters’ lives unalterably as the curtain comes down.
Unlike more recent stripped back productions this is a bold, almost cartoon-like depiction of Mexico with its simple guest huts, backdrop of rockery and plants, and roped staircase carved into the hillside. Night of the Iguana talks about life having a “realistic and a fantastic level” realised through Rae Smith’s hyper-real and unchanging set where every conversation takes place, so the stage is filled with ephemera that it doesn’t really need. The props and scenery look pretty, creating an idea of the alfresco beauty and wildness of Central America that unleashes and reflects Larry’s turmoil, but it’s also a bit heavy-handed in its suggestion of claustrophobia, a distraction from the intensity of the conversations that the actors and Macdonald have to work against rather than within.
But this they do superbly. We have certain expectations of Williams’s characters, they are often fragile, repressed and trapped in their own lives, unable to overcome the limited expectations of society that forces them to cage the natural passion they can barely contain. Williams tends to be more critical of men than women, burying themselves temporarily in alcohol and lust until the pressure and emptiness of their encounters breaks them into conformity. We see this in Summer and Smoke as doctor John seeks solace from the pain of being alive in the local club, a desperate love for his neighbour Alma crushed by the increased numbing of his emotional and sexual life.
Here, Larry starts the play sullied by his many encounters with very young women on his tour and during his single year as a working priest. Recently deflowering a 16-year old who’s now obsessed with him, Larry is bent on self-destruction, a figure loathsome both to the audience and himself. Clive Owen’s performance is full of nervous energy as the strung-out and anxious Larry treads around his own imminent breakdown for most of the play. The nervy disposition he suggests as his unhappy tour group endlessly blast the bus horn, meets a rising panic, hoping that a few days of recuperation at the hotel will soothe him all the while knowing deep down that he is trapped there.
Everyone in Williams’s plays is seeking some kind of salvation and purification, and Owen’s Larry needs it more than most as the weakness of his flesh collides against his version of Christianity that sent him fleeing from the unpalatably mild view of God in the American church. His Old Testament belief in the power of the deity, expressed through the raging violence of tropical storms, entirely reflects the weather-like nature of his own moods – a pattern of behaviour in which a passion for young women clouds his judgement with a violent aftermath.
In a superb return to the stage, Owen’s Larry is a haunted man, pursued by his “spook”, a kind of depression or devil that he can never escape. As his breakdown advances and he waits for “the click” in his head like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to restore rationality, Larry seeks solace in his growing friendship with Hannah, a need to be understood by another person that is desperate but never pitiable. Larry is an unforgivable character and Owen embraces his many sides while still retaining a humanity that makes his need for someone to truly see him rather than his office one of the most engaging aspects of the play. What we see in Owen’s performance is the slow entrapment and reduction of the wild iguana, the taming of a man’s spirit and, like many a Williams hero, the acceptance of a conventional, emotionally confined future, the easy option.
By contrast the leading female characters in Williams’s plays have a towering inner strength that only grows within the crisis of the play, leaving them free to become another kind of being despite their seemingly fragile exterior shell. The chameleonic powers of Leah Williams have delivered some exceptional performances in recent years and here she adopts the saintly placidity of the hustler-artist Hannah Jelkes, travelling the world by selling art to fund her adventures. The unrufflable and saint-like demeanour is reflected in Williams’s carefully controlled refined New England accent, suggesting a woman whose physical passions are almost non-existent in an life driven by intellectual and artistic pursuits that have a spiritual gratification. Slowly she comes into view, the prim restraint replaced with a clear compassion for lonely middle-aged men and a surprising non-judgemental worldliness that makes her the ideal confident and the only person who can bring respite to Larry.
Williams’s Hannah has purity and serenity but there is a resourcefulness in her, a deep-rooted fight that prevents anyone taking advantage of her. Her conversations with Larry are brief at first, invested with so much potential chemistry from Williams and Owen that they tantalise the audience with what’s to come. When they finally speak at length in the long third act it is enthralling. Both actors are mesmerising as the conversation morphs constantly from a polite friendship to something more complex, an almost spiritual connection loaded with unfulfillable desire. Hannah’s long monologue about her romantic encounters is delivered in pin-dropping silence by Williams lost in the memory of the past and while her current existence also ends in this shabby hotel, unlike Larry you know she will continue to grow, to emerge stronger and fuller for the experience.
As hotel-owner Maxine, Anna Gunn is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and before the play begins has determined that Larry will stay with her. Maxine may be openly provocative and blunt, but Gunn also shows her hidden vulnerability and a subtly in her dealings with Larry, knowing not to push him too quickly. There seems to be genuine affection for her late husband despite her dismissal of their marriage in public, and, as with the other characters, while Maxine is not exactly likeable, Gunn suggests a loneliness under the surface, a determination to keep others at arms-length emotionally.
Like the tethered iguana, James Macdonald’s fascinating production shifts and bucks at its restraints until the characters can no longer contain their inner selves. We could do without the comedy Germans and perhaps a slightly less cliched way to present the Mexican staff could have been found, a set of Williams’s creations that feel awkward in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, gripping performances from Clive Owen and Lia Williams, and Macdonald’s slow-burn direction allows Williams’s writing to cast its spell.