Left – Lynette Curran & Jacqueline McKenzie. Cover – Ewen Leslie. Photos – Heidrun Lohr
Belvoir's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a good one – a very good one – but it is not quite a great one. It features some excellent performances, a wonderful set, and some very, very clever direction from Simon Stone, but it is missing something: a certain explosiveness. It has moments of brilliance, but it never quite catches fire.
For those unfamiliar with Tennessee Williams’ classic play, a brief précis of the plot: Brick (Ewen Leslie) is married to Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie). Since the suicide of his best friend, his grief has turned him into an alcoholic, and he refuses to sleep with his wife. Brick and Maggie have come home for his father Big Daddy’s (Marshall Napier) 65th birthday. Although he doesn’t know it, Big Daddy is dying of cancer, and his son Gooper (Alan Dukes) and his grasping wife Mae (Rebecca Massey) are desperate to secure his estate in his will.
The real star of this show is the set. It is very simple and incredibly powerful: a single revolve, the back half masked by a row of streamers. The motion of the stage reminds us powerfully of the title: like a cat on a hot tin roof, no one in this show has comfortable footing. Everyone is dancing, bobbing, weaving, trying desperately but futilely to find solid ground. It is a birthday party, but a dark one – behind that row of streamers, innumerable secrets are concealed.
Ewen Leslie as Brick and Jacqueline McKenzie as Maggie both turn in individually good performances, but there is a spark missing between them. While we understand very well why Brick loathes Maggie now, and why he has sunk to the depths he has (the moment where Brick breaks down into tears in front of his father because he passionately, desperately misses his friend is heartbreaking), it is harder to understand why he married Maggie in the first place – or why Maggie married him.
Coming in as he did three days before preview, Marshall Napier turns in a creditable performance as Big Daddy. When he has his script in hand, his performance (understandably) suffers, but in the sections when he is off book, he infuses his character with a gruff, take-no-prisoners attitude that is wholly appropriate. He and Lynette Curran as Big Mama deal the best with their dialogue – their transformation from Southern aristocrats to Australian landowners is certainly the most believable.
And therein lies the problem with this production. Simon Stone has made the decision to have his cast use Australian, rather than Southern, accents. He explains the reasons behind this in his director’s note in the program – he is trying to strip the cultural baggage from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to make audiences see it as immediate and new and relevant rather than simply as a classic. It is clear what he is trying to do, but it doesn’t quite work. Dialogue that flows naturally in a Southern accent can sound stilted and awkward in an Australian one, and despite a concerted effort from all of the cast, this certainly occurs in places. There are some lines where the dialogue almost defeats the actors’ natural accent: it sounds Southern in spite of itself.
More problematic, however, is the unspoken assumption that for something to have immediacy and relevance for a contemporary Australian audience, it must be spoken in our accent. I don’t think this is true at all. There is something patronising in the assumption that something must be essentially translated into an Australian accent to be understood as universal by Australian audiences. Additionally, by removing the play from its setting, it also removes it from its literary context. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may be a universal classic, but it is also part of a specifically Southern literary tradition, one that spans from antebellum plantation diaries through Twain and Chopin and Faulkner and more recently manifests in texts like Friday Night Lights (where we can see, perhaps, a descendant of Brick Pollitt in Tim Riggins). This is not to say that no play should ever be given a new setting or situated outside its context – that would prove extremely troublesome for productions of Shakespeare, for example – but in this case, I think it removes, rather than adds, a layer of meaning, and this may be what is preventing this production from truly catching fire.
This production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is frustratingly close to excellence. It is absolutely worth seeing and contains some moments of absolute brilliance, but as a whole, it just falls short. There is a spark that doesn’t quite ignite. The tin roof isn’t cold, but it’s not quite hot – it’s only very warm.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Director Simon Stone
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 16 February – 7 April 2013
Tickets: $65 – $45
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 | belvoir.com.au