The plot revolves around the patriarchal Big Daddy (Chris Haywood), ageing and ill, and his two sons, the elder son Gooper (Grant Piro) married with five children, and the beloved younger son Brick (Martin Henderson) also married but childless, an embittered ex-footballer nursing a secret grudge. Many aspects of Brick’s character - homosexuality and alcoholism, as well as an uncompromising attitude to truth - are based on Williams’ own character. Brick’s bid for honesty in a society that he sees as lying and rapacious provides the charge in an explosive situation. It differs from the 1958 Hollywood version with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor that downplayed the homosexuality, detracting from the issue of fertility and inheritance.
Melbourne Theatre Company has chosen to stage this 1955 play, set in Mississippi, in its original form, uncut, with one set and with actors attempting the southern US accent. This strikes me as brave and a little foolish. The length was daunting for both actors and audience, but both coped well and no doubt relished dialogue that was poles apart from the more common MTC fare of David Williamson: it was meaty, nuanced and timeless. The set, significantly dominated by a huge bed and with louvred doors opening on to the illusion of a hot summer’s night, was used to full effect and guaranteed there was no relief from the ensuing family confrontation. But the adoption of American accents, and specifically the southern intonation, which were beyond the capabilities of several of the actors, was a severe drawback to the conviction of the play. Maintaining the accent meant the lines were delivered against the grain of the actor’s natural expression.
Essie Davis as Maggie the Cat, who holds the dialogue almost single-handedly in the lengthy opening scene, did not have that problem. Her handling of the Southern way of speaking was excellent and her characterisation flawless. At times bitchy and aggressive, at others loving and loyal, she embodied the sensual but frustrated wife with conflicting emotions for her alcoholic husband Brick. When the scene changed and she left, the energy dropped. It was as if she were the main character, and Martin Henderson and Chris Haywood needed to come up to that level to carry the play to its climax. Brick is a difficult part to play. He is wearing a plaster cast on his leg, walks with a crutch and responds to his wife in monosyllables. And yet he is the pivot of the whole drama and needs to maintain the focus with charisma and intensity, both of which were missing here.
When Brick becomes drunk and Big Daddy challenges him, he becomes more voluble. The young man, who is clinging to the memory of what he believes was a real and honest relationship, is confronted by his father, whose attitude is that of an older man, rooted in pragmatism and conviction. As soon as he had enough dialogue and freedom to emote, Henderson came alive, and he and Haywood (in spite of their accents) brought matters to a head in a moving and powerful exchange.
The part of Big Mama and Mae, Gooper’s wife, are played with exuberance by Deirdre Rubenstein and Rebekah Stone, both of them exaggerating the Southern accents to the point of hysteria. They were impressive, but portrayed their roles more as caricatures than as rounded characters. Director Gale Edwards depicts Gooper and Mae as the ‘baddies’ in a melodrama,instead of the hapless creatures of the society that made them. Gary Files adds a natural and human touch as the Reverend Tooker and Terry Norris completes the cast as Dr Baugh.
The stage is first seen in a red light with the shadow of a fan turning, but soon the lights are turned up and there is no shadow on stage for the duration of the play. Perhaps more shading could have intensified the elements of brooding and mystery. Paul Grabowsky’s music was suitably jazzy and sexual and a great relief whenever it punctuated the drama.
This is not a definitive performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but it is wonderful to see its revival in the original form and to see the psychological drama unfold as Williams envisaged it. And how rare to see what is basically a tragedy move towards what could be construed as a happy ending.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF
by Tennessee Williams
Venue: the Arts Centre Playhouse
Dates: 9 August - 13 September 2008
Times: Mondays & Tuesdays 6.30pm, Wednesdays 1pm & 8pm, Thursdays & Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm & 8.30pm (times may vary during previews)
Prices: $16 - $75.30
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 or online at www.mtc.com.au