Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Apr 29 – Jun 8, 2019
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Addison Bourke, Tristan Bowes, Peter Carroll, Harry Greenwood, Emily Harriss, Jye McCallum, Josh McConville, Zahra Newman, Pamela Rabe, Holly Simon, Nikki Shiels, Lila Artemise Tapper, Arie Trajcevski, Hugo Weaving, Anthony Brandon Wong, Jerra Wright-Smith
Images by Daniel Boud
Characters in Tennesse Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof suffer immense anguish. Regardless of where they happen to reside in the hierarchy of their social order, powerful or powerless, Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy are each unable to escape a torturous existence. A result perhaps of the family’s wealth, or maybe the American deep south in 1950s had truly been indiscriminately stifling, or life is simply unbearable no matter one’s choices and orientations; the beauty of Williams’ play is that it explains little. In its exhaustive excavations of human emotion however, we identify the truths of our beings at their deepest, but Williams leaves us to draw our own conclusions, on the causes of, and the resolutions for, all the pain that inevitably befalls us.
There is a lot that is sublime in director Kip Williams’ vision. A momentary glimpse of sitting Vice President Mike Pence on Brick’s television set, is a powerful suggestion of the play’s timelessness. Oppressive aspects of Western values, rooted in white patriarchy, is the undercurrent disquiet that drives the action. The production manifests a sense of hopelessness appropriate to the playwright’s pessimism, one that is masochistically gratifying, as is typical of classic melodrama, but also undeniably thought-provoking.
Brick and Maggie’s bedroom is sleek and modern in style, with dark colours and hard edges representing a masculine space in which Maggie’s lack of status is evident. Designed by David Fleischer, the stage is visually seductive, but arguably ineffectual with invisible doors, for a play that repeatedly involves itself with notions of intrusion. Stefan Gregory’s music takes its cues from film noir, nostalgically evocative and very pleasurable. Lights by Nick Schlieper are cold, almost menacing in their depiction of emotional torment. The many instances of fireworks in Act II are controversially manufactured, each time overwhelming our senses for several seconds, with their cacophonous, and repetitive, disruptions into Brick and Big Daddy’s long confrontation.
Actor Zahra Newman is entirely splendid as Maggie, dejected but determined, a broken woman hanging on to the little that she has, to turn a living hell into something coherent. Newman’s extraordinary instinct and artistic inventiveness, along with an uncompromising vigour, make Act I of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof a personal tour de force that has us hopelessly exhilarated. Big Daddy is masterfully performed by Hugo Weaving, who although brings to the role nothing that is unexpected, demonstrates his unparalleled stage presence and a searing conviction that absolutely captivates. The exaggerated theatricality he employs is riveting, with a psychological accuracy that allows us to perceive complicated dimensions of human nature, as we luxuriate in the sumptuousness of his delivery. Also very resonant, is Harry Greenwood as Brick, who overcomes his physical dissimilarity to the character, for a convincing portrayal of a defeated man who retreats into self-abuse. Greenwood’s approach is restrained by comparison, but he adds dynamism and texture to how the story is conveyed, on what is often a very loud stage.
Brick’s indulgence in alcoholism looks as though he is willing himself to die. Maggie on the other hand, who has much less to live for, can be seen maniacally scrambling for survival at every moment. Those are the extremes of how we can be, when facing the worst. The people in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof are all left to their own devices. Although under one roof, this is a family whose bonds are weak, with relationships built on mendacious foundations (the word “mendacity” is mentioned multiple times). Unable to locate anything honest and real, what they have can only feel empty; distracted by material riches, it is loneliness that is left unnoticed and festering. We see no love in this household, and realise that no peace or happiness could ever come their way.