Tennessee Williams seems to be in vogue at the moment. The Glass Menagerie has just finished a run in the West End, and a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is opening there next month, while sandwiched in between is Sweet Bird of Youth at Chichester Festival Theatre. Not as well known as the other two (though the Old Vic staged it in 2013 with Kim Cattrall), this 1959 tragedy of fading youth, broken dreams, loneliness and guilt is an exquisite but fragile affair. Unfortunately, in Jonathan Kent’s laboured production, the play’s flaws are exposed on this theatre’s wide open stage where there is no room to hide.
The drama is set in the evocatively named St. Cloud on the Gulf Coast. Twenty-nine-year-old drifter Chance Wayne is escorting the declining film star Alexandra del Lago (travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis after running out of the premiere of her comeback movie, fearing it will be a flop), and has brought her back to his Florida hometown, where he has unfinished business.
He hopes to blackmail the actress into helping him and his former sweetheart Heavenly Finley land contracts in Hollywood. But she is no longer the girl of his romanticised vision: she has been forced to have a hysterectomy after he has infected her with venereal disease. Meanwhile her father – the corrupt politician Boss Finley – and her brother Tom Jr. are threatening to avenge Heavenly’s honour by castrating Chance.
As the names of many of the characters suggest, there is a strong symbolic strand in Williams’s depiction of unfulfilled potential and tarnished ideals. Chance’s fantasies of becoming famous have become delusional, while his boasting of youthful exploits may be grossly exaggerated. Del Lago is even more anxious about ageing and failure, taking refuge in toy boys, booze and drugs. One is afraid of not achieving anything, the other of losing her status, but they are united by their common enemy of time.
But Sweet Bird of Youth’s sense of heightened realism is not convincingly expressed here. Williams’s hothouse plays are delicate blooms that need subtle delivery of lyrical dialogue (which often include long monologues), otherwise they veer into melodrama. And this heavy-handed production does not get the tone right, with the cast in general straining vocally in their portraits of damaged, self-obsessed people, and failing to engage our sympathies. After a slow-moving start, the show distinctly picks up after the interval, but the tragic denouement still lacks real poignancy.
One device that does work particularly well is Kent’s clever use of TV screens to show the right-wing racist Boss Finlay’s political rally, with a heckler being thrown out (reminiscent of Donald Trump’s recent presidential campaign) then appearing live on stage being thrust downstairs and beaten up by Boss’s henchmen. It also gives a glimpse into the social context of a segregation-era South where lynch mobs were still able to target African-Americans with impunity.
Anthony Ward’s impressive design features a billowing white cloud suspended over the stage, across which the shadows of birds occasionally flit like fleeting youth. Through the half-closed blinds of the hotel bedroom, the outline of palm trees can be seen fluttering in the breeze, while inside a rumpled, luxurious double bed is surrounded by empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays in a picture of decadent compulsion.
The cast is led by two American actors. The Oscar and Tony-winning Marcia Gay Harden conveys the desperate and domineering aspects of del Largo without capturing her cougar-like sensuality or grand dame glamour, but she relishes some of the sardonic one-liners, such as, when inspecting Chance in the cold light of the morning, “I may have done better but I’ve certainly done worse.” Brian J. Smith ‒ so fine as the ‘gentleman caller’ in the recent production of The Glass Menagerie ‒ seems ill at ease as the fantasist gigolo Chance, suggesting his psychological emasculation but not his manipulative charm. There should be a strong emotional bond between the two in this mutually exploitative and dependent relationship but the sleazy chemistry isn’t there.
Richard Cordery’s cigar-smoking redneck Boss Finley is a strong menacing presence, while Graham Butler is his nervy, inflammable son Tom Jr. and Victoria Bewick the angrily disaffected Heavenly. Emma Amos is coarsely provocative as Finley’s kept mistress Miss Lucy, and Ingrid Craigie gives a nice cameo as the maternally concerned Aunt Nonnie who tries to warn Chance to escape his fate while he can, but it’s all to no avail.
Sweet Bird of Youth is at Chichester Festival Theatre until June 24th. For more details, click here.