Friday 21 July 2017

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo, or, Wondering About Cake Not Characters

Note: This is a review of the preview on Monday 17th July 2017. Press night (according to news reports) takes place on Monday 24th July 2017.

I booked for this show for two main reasons. Firstly because reports of the Benedict Andrews directed Streetcar Named Desire, which I missed, were so strong. Secondly because, as an Americanist, I feel I should see more Tennessee Williams. As I skimmed through the programme before the start I was optimistic having seen several of the performers do fine work in other shows. Sadly this revival is not a fine show.

Andrews's first major error is his choice of setting – this is partly a case of coming adrift in time and partly a problem of design. In terms of time Andrews tries to move the play out of its original 1950s setting – most obviously by having phone conversations take place on mobiles and a modernistic sound system periodically blasting out music. It is, however, very unclear where we are chronologically beyond this vague suggestion of the present day. This is compounded by Magda Willi's set design. Brick and Maggie's room is set on a sloped platform – it's furnished with a bed and a make up table of indeterminate date but certainly to my eye more recent than the 50s, and a modern shower. This is surrounded on three sides by a flat space backed by enormous golden walls. Characters can thus walk round the platform on all three sides. This design robbed the play, as far as I was concerned, of pretty nearly any feeling of oppression and claustrophobia. The text is persistently trying to emphasise this sense of entrapment but I just never believed it. In the fights, for example, there's just far too much space for people to escape into that the threat is never convincing. Then there are the collisions between the specificities of the text and this somewhat abstract design – a jarring example is the mention of the clock during the Brick/Big Daddy scene. A loud chime starts in one pause – I couldn't think why it was doing so, and when they then refer to a clock in the dialogue I simply did not believe that such a clock was actually there. The same applies to wider context, the possession of the enormous plantation outside the room is a key theme of the play, but I never really believed it was there – the setting felt more like we were in some sort of urban modernist hotel.

I also had the distinct feeling that Andrews didn't always trust the text. He's presumably requested the intrusive soundscape from Gareth Fry which ratchets up the backing noise, unsuccessfully, at most revelations. I suspected the Wagner of being a directorial interpolation – it seems this may not be the case – but it equally seems unlikely to me that Williams intended its use to come across as so heavy handed. Then there are the fireworks, these are referred to in the text, but they go off with a tiresome loud persistence through the Brick/Big Daddy scene – again the loudest bangs seemed to be reserved for major revelations in the dialogue, suggesting that Andrews doesn't trust the text to make an impact unaided. The effect is to undermine, not reinforce.

Andrews also overdoes two classic errors of contemporary theatre. First, the nudity. This is a text which gradually strips away the lies people have been telling. Putting Jack O'Connell (Brick) naked under the shower at the very beginning lacks subtlety. It's so in your face that it undermines the textual uncoverings that follow. The same applies to the stripping off of O'Connell and Sienna Miller (Maggie) at the very end. It isn't provocative, I wasn't shocked, I just felt it was gratuitous. Second, this strange conviction a number of current directors seem to have that the clearest way for performers to express strong emotion is to have them throw things around the stage. In this production this includes glasses, ice cubes, cake, Brick's crutch. With both these devices Andrews doesn't seem to grasp that more subtle is more powerful – one stripping off, one item thrown can be very powerful – if people keep doing it, it very quickly loses that power.

That cake is worth a little further comment. It sits centre stage for most of the Brick/Big Daddy scene as the candles burn down (we all know Big Daddy is dying and other characters time is running out - was it really necessary to be so tiresomely, obviously symbolic?) The bigger issue was I kept wondering what the cake's fate was going to be when the play should have had me worrying about Brick and Big Daddy. When that fate finally arrives it's laughable (for all the wrong reasons).

None of the actors trapped in this truly manage to transcend it but I primarily blame Andrews for this as I've seen both Miller and Colm Meaney (Big Daddy) give far finer performances in other shows. Meaney at least shows an understanding of the importance of variation of tone and intensity – his scene with O'Connell's Brick came closest to convincing me of the reality of these characters and their situation. Another director might have assisted O'Connell to better show the effects of a character who is supposed to be drinking steadily for the entire play. I had bigger problems I'm afraid with Sienna Miller's Maggie. She ought to absolutely hold the attention, in an awful way, in the opening scene, but I'm afraid she hasn't on the showing of this performance found that command. It's all too much at one level, and, when delivering famous lines, too conscious that she is so doing. She's also not helped by an accent which sounds insecure (accents generally could be improved in this show). The supporting cast mostly failed to find depth of character. I accept this is tricky given most of them get limited stage time, and again, they are not assisted in that quest by the production and direction (the decision to give Doctor Baugh a loud crimson shirt is a case in point – it makes him ineffectively conspicuous).

This was the fourth preview. By my calculation a further six remain. This may enable performances to sharpen, but some of them at present need rather deeper work than that. It is difficult to see how the fundamentally flawed nature of the production can be addressed – though Andrews could at least consider mitigating some of the excesses in sound design and throwing things. As things stand this is a long, disappointing evening. To be avoided.

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