Christine: The swallows are flying low. We’ll have rain after midnight – when this heat breaks.
In James Madonald’s production of The Night of the Iguana, it rains. Probably more than I’ve ever seen it rain inside a theatre with a roof before. Theatre rain is often misty, a faint haze formed by a sheet of fine water coming down towards the back of the stage which the actors sort of coyly pass in front of but avoid getting overly wet. Or, it’s a very focused soaking like the one Tamsin Greig got at the end of Twelfth Night in the Olivier. Something about the way she reacted when that water started pouring on her made me immediately think: I bet that’s bloody freezing. I bet you have to steady yourself to do that every night. The rain, however, at the end of Act II in The Night of the Iguana is not just a realistic cascade of sky ripping-open proportions, it’s very specifically a tropical storm, or a hot weather storm, the type that builds up and up for days on end. The storm that covers people in sweat for hours before as the temperature rises and the air gets ever more humid. It’s that big orgasmic storm that crashes through an August afternoon and makes the dirt rise from the pavements so that you can taste this sweetly disgusting smell fluttering through the air. The kind of baptismal drenching that creates an irresistible urge to run outside into the pouring rain and stand like a little child marvelling at down-falling droplets, face upwards to the sky or hands outstretched grasping wet blobs. Which is, as it happens, precisely what the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, played by Clive Owen, does. He stands right inside this pouring wetness, palms upwards like he’s waiting for God not to wash him clean, but to dissolve his solid form and let him be washed away downstream with the mountain dust.
Years ago, before I had started going to the theatre regularly, my step dad fished two tickets out of the bin in the office where he worked and asked me if I wanted to go to the Globe that evening. The tickets had been purchased as a corporate present for some overseas guests visiting the organisation, but for whatever reason the idea was dropped and the tickets went into the bin. My step dad retrieved them based on the idea that it was ‘the sort of thing Rosie would like’, which was especially kind of him given that it wasn’t the sort of thing he particularly liked. Anyhow, we arrived at the Globe on a miserable and really cold evening. I met him in the theatre bar and he gave me the end of his whiskey over ice to drink before we went in, because that’s precisely the drink you want before sitting in the Globe on a blustery evening. We were watching King Lear and, thanks to the generosity of whichever boss or secretary had bought the tickets, we were lucky to have covered seats on the ground floor. Not long into the performance, it started to rain. And I mean really rain. It was like the sky had cracked open and the actors, bless them, were getting absolutely drenched. Skidding across the thrust stage and breaking a limb was a genuine concern and you could see this water just cascading down their faces as they bravely barrelled on. I remember being absolutely mesmerised by this, by these actors being deluged and carrying on regardless – and I don’t think that was just the effect of the whiskey. Eventually, we reached the scene on the heath and of course the natural conditions of Bankside that night were the perfect setting for this rain-soaked desolate stretch of land. I felt instinctively that this was the most perfect moment, seeing King Lear performed in a ginormous rainstorm. And this was the first time I’d ever seen the play or had any idea what it was about or what its legacy is. I just knew that this perfect joining of heaven and earth, the setting created by an accident of weather was incredibly special.
Christine: Rain coming tonight Miesie. I can smell it. The ants are moving faster, The clouds are gathering low.
Shannon extends his hands under the rainfall, turning them as if to cool them. Then he cups them to catch the water in his palms and bathes his forehead with it. The rainfall increases… Shannon lowers his hands from his burning forehead and stretches them out through the rain’s silver sheet as if he were reaching for something outside and beyond himself. Then nothing is visible but these reaching out hands.
Christine: Still no rain. Just light drops that mark the dust and make this old roof leak.
Looking out across the skies.
(Inscrutably.) Some children living in the Karoo have never seen rain. They’ve seen the clouds roll in from the Kalahari, and they’ve heard the gysie sing for three days. But nothing. Never seen a storm. It can bewitch you – the endless promise of rain.
It’s hard to decide exactly what the rain The Night of the Iguana signifies. Partly because it comes bang in the middle of the play, not at the end to correspond with some sort of resolution. As a whole, Tennessee Williams’s work has some pretty heavy-handed metaphors and imagery in it, not least the titular iguana whose parallel entrapment to that of Shannon is literally mentioned in the script. There’s also the spot-it-coming-from-a-mile-off final recitation of a poem by Nonno (Julian Glover), the aged poet who needs to finish writing one more before death. So he does, and then he dies. What I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the storm was another of these clumsily-applied devices. As it is, the rainstorm, so beautifully recreated by designer Rae Smith, is one of the most interesting parts of The Night of the Iguana because it’s one of the play’s ambiguous elements. Instead of it arriving as, for example, a signal of Shannon being cleansed of his sins or a washing away of the ‘spook’ that haunts him, the rain is oddly anti-cathartic. It symbolises, perhaps, the way Shannon and many others seek absolution through simple means. Or rather that they wish, without any hard work on their own part, that something like a great thunder storm would whoosh in and wash all their troubles cold away. Williams doesn’t grant Shannon that easy way out and indeed neither should a modern production in particular given his predilection for sleeping with, and then hitting, teenaged women. At it’s best, like during the rain scene, The Night of the Iguana is a messy, weird narrative that doesn’t even quite slot neatly into the ‘two lost souls befriending each other’ mould. It’s about depression, alcoholism, loneliness and some truly awful behaviour. It’s about redemption but not the kind that happens just by turning on a tap.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
On the press night for Jay Miller’s production of The Crucible, The Yard was struck by a cloudburst. It happened with expert synchronicity at the start of the final scene. As the play reached its crescendo, this great roar rose from the rain cascading onto the theatre’s corrugated metal roof. I remember thinking, wow, you really couldn’t make up a better ending to a play than that. The temperature fell slightly as the water battered down, gifting an almost-imperceptible chill to the final moments. It felt oddly like a blessing, like a sign that said: God is so on board with this piece of theatre she’s come to help you out with a bit of extra sound design. The reverberations got louder and louder, and you knew everyone in the room was conscious of them, but obviously nobody said a word or communicated this. They just stayed watching the play, so it became like this weird shared secret, this rain. When I mentioned it to another writer straight afterwards, because it was all I could think about, I almost expected her to deny it happened or to confirm that I’d imagined it.
Christine: (Cradling her.) Sssh. The storm is breaking. There will be rain coming soon.
Mies Julie by Yaël Faber, based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg
The Night of the Iguana is on at Noel Coward Theatre till 28th September. More info here.