The opening tableau of director Anthony Almeida’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sees the figure of a man splayed out on table as if ready for vivisection, veiled behind a column of white curtain that stands in the centre of the stage. That image of surgical sterility is a fitting introduction to a show that takes a scalpel to Tennessee Williams’ monumental script, extracting each organ and presenting it to the audience. But while Almeida shows a keen understanding of dramatic anatomy, it’s questionable whether the play comes out of the procedure with its heart still beating.
In Rosanna Vize’s design, a white curtain is the first and most prominent way the production takes the emotional and subtextual content of the script and presents it physically: it places a literal barrier between characters who struggle to connect with one another, casts a shadow across the stage as the shades of past events cloud the present moment. It’s an initially effective bit of staging that begins to outstay its welcome at times, particularly when the characters seem to be interacting more with the staging than with one another. When it works, it really works; at one point, Oliver Johnstone’s Brick stumbles backwards and falls through a section of curtain as he tries to escape confrontation with his family. The moment when the veil falls down and tangles around him as he tries to maintain composure elicited genuine gasps from an audience unsure whether the falling curtain was part of the production. In that moment we were all sharing Brick’s panic, all willing him to pull himself together, to free himself from the ties that bound him.
But the moment that follows digs the scalpel in too deep. Brick writhes around beneath the sheet, looking like a Halloween ghost as Teresa Banham’s Big Mama tries to untangle him. The moment might have been effective had it not gone on for so long, but it’s a piece of prop work that stretches into set piece as Brick stumbles and crawls the length of the stage like a newborn calf in some amniotic sack, tethered to the mother he’s desperate to escape. The performance saw the audience’s gasps turn to laughter, a needlessly showy spectacle made all the stranger by the other characters’ lack of acknowledgement of it.
One thing that remains consistent throughout the show is the performers’ adherence to the dialogue as written in the script. They recite their lines as though they were in a more conventional staging, while their movements exist on a different plane. Characters crisscross the stage and stand near or apart from one another depending on how near they are to a moment of reconciliation. It means that sometimes two performers will stand on opposite sides of the stage and carry on a conversation as though they were face to face.
Again, there are times when this is very effective. As Big Daddy, Peter Forbes chews his way through the heavy monologues of the dying patriarch’s existential crisis, repeatedly wondering aloud ‘why is it so damn hard for people to talk?’ As Big Daddy spirals through the loneliness of his life, of his impending death, he and his son draw closer to one another, until, in a moment unacknowledged by either of them, Big Daddy silently places a hand on Brick’s shoulder.
In that moment, the two are united in an unspoken acknowledgement of their own inadequacy. Both knowing that they long to be honest but both so unaccustomed to vulnerability that they’d never recognise true affection if they felt it. In that small action Almeida shows an understanding of the play’s characters and presents a dimension of them that is rarely brought to the fore, the inner longing and vulnerability that another production might lose in the more explosive confrontations.
The characters’ inability to connect, to relate to one another honestly, is the thematic core of the play. The family are restricted by the social mores of the setting, the specific expectations placed on people of their class and gender, the social codes of southern etiquette and American masculinity. The production strips away much of that context while maintaining those central themes. But it actually left me wishing that there had been more of a willingness to take the script apart, to see how much could be removed while keeping what matters.
Therein lies the biggest challenge this adaptation, or really any adaptation of such an iconic work of literature faces “” how much are you willing to change to present the work in a new light? William’s original script is incredibly prescriptive in its stage directions and use of phonetic spelling to convey the rhythms of the southern dialect. The play is so grounded in its setting that it’s really not possible to stray too far without losing the point of the thing.
The original script is so complete that it leaves little room for embellishment. It’s already a play in which a character carries a literal crutch that stands in for his various emotional dependencies. When Brick asks for his crutch while reaching for a bottle of whiskey, the audience understands full well the point being made, and it’s not particularly interesting to pile on more and more such visual metaphors and expect quantity to lead to quality.
While the production has plenty of innovative moments, there’s only so far it can go in the long shadow of Tennessee William’s script. Almeida grapples with Williams’ legacy in much the same way as Brick and Big Daddy grapple with their own, each telling themselves that they can find some kind of escape; and wouldn’t it be funny if that was true.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ran at Liverpool Playhouse from 22 September-2 October. It tours the UK until 30 October. More info here.