Last night’s performance of Sweet Bird of Youth bordered on a societal event. At least that’s what it looked like, with the auditorium studded with expensive outfits and the slightly swollen upper-lips of women who have reached a certain age and means – one suspects Kim Cattrall’s character in Sex and the City would have been, if not among friends, then among devotees.
And, perhaps, it’s not all that surprising. Tennessee Williams’s play is not so much about the loss of youth, but about the impossibility of getting it back. It is perhaps a play that would have spoken to Samantha Jones all too readily.
Written in 1959 Sweet Bird of Youth opens with faded movie star Alexandra del Largo (Kim Cattrall), waking up on the tail end of a massive drug and booze-fuelled bender in a little town on the Gulf coast of Florida. So befuddled is del Largo that she can’t remember who she is, where she is, or who the handsome young man is with whom she has presumably spent the night. The first scene is a spirited tussle between del Largo and the handsome young man she happens to be rooming with, a gigolo chancer by the suspiciously apt name of Chance Wayne (Seth Numrich). In this drawn-out opening scene we learn that Wayne – who is more or less officially employed as Ms del Largo’s driver – has his own reasons for stopping in on the town of St Cloud: it’s his home town, and he is back to reclaim the heart of his teenage sweetheart, Heavenly Finley (Louise Dylan), a name similarly suspect in its aptitude. It is perhaps not Tennessee Williams at his most subtle. Neither, perhaps, is it Tennessee Williams at his best. But even when not at his best, Williams has still managed to produce a play of unusual wit, wisdom and tremendous craftsmanship.
Much has been written about the play’s supposed failings, especially with regards to the pacing of its slow moving, hysterical opening and its uneven gallop towards the end. But I think this largely misses the point. The structure of Sweet Bird of Youth is not that of the ‘well-made play’; instead its structure is like that of a great wheel or cog, turning slowly at first but with a ceaseless and ever building momentum.
Directed by Marianne Elliott, fresh from her successes with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the production is typically brazen, with Cattrall camping it up to Norma Desmond levels as she laments her foregone successes. Rae Smith’s design is similarly extravagant, all sheer, billowing curtains, marble columns and, in the second half, a forest of blood-red Confederate flags.
With all this going on around him, it’s Numrich’s character that really anchors the play. We may think we have the measure of this pretty-boy drifter in all of about 30 seconds but, as the play unfolds and we learn more about St Cloud’s darker recesses, new complexities are added to Wayne layer upon layer until, roughly midway through the second act, it seems that perhaps this play isn’t the hysterical melodrama it appeared to be at the beginning but something far more thoughtful and nuanced.
Another criticism oft levied at Sweet Bird is that it is not a believable play, but then which of Tennessee Williams’s plays are believable? They are not realistic but they do – and this play does – deal in realities. After all what tragedy could be more pedestrian and usual than the loss of youth whether that be sudden, in the unnamed but easily guessed surgical procedure that Heavenly has recently been subjected to, or gradual, in the 8-10 hairs that Wayne finds in his brush every time he combs?
Neither the play nor the production is without its faults. Heavenly’s character is practically a non-entity and her father, the overbearing white supremacist Boss Finley (Owen Roe) comes across as a ridiculous rageaholic, a beetroot-red Yosemite Sam, flying off the handle every 10 seconds to an ever-decreasingly frightening effect.
That said, The Old Vic’s production makes for an incredibly watchable, engaging and poignant evening, and though it might not have the unity and immediacy of his great memory play of the 1940s, The Glass Menagerie, it is still it a play that is both expert and catty, and it is most certainly not a play to be readily overlooked.