Tennessee Williams’ play ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ is one of the truly great plays of the last century. Written six years after his gargantuan success with ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, it demonstrated a new level of skill, intelligence and fury in his work, unearthing the rich complexities of crumbling human relationships. It legacy is enormous, both thanks to its Pulitzer Prize in 1955 and its famous film adaptation in 1958, and it is for this reason that the Young Vic chose it as their recent West End production, captured for Australian audiences by National Theatre Live.
‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ is set over a hot summers night in the Mississippi Delta, where wealthy plantation owner Big Daddy (Colm Meaney, ‘Con Air’, ‘Layer Cake’) is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday. The play occurs in real time and entirely in the room of Big Daddy’s alcoholic ex-footballer son Brick (Jack O’Connell, ‘Unbroken’, ‘300: Rise of an Empire’) and his fiery wife Maggie (Sienna Miller, ‘The Lost City of Z’, ‘Foxcatcher’). Their marriage is falling apart, and while Brick would rather drink away his disgust, Maggie is determined to save it. Over the course of the night though, deeply buried lies begin to surface, ones that will inevitably tear this privileged Southern family apart.
The cast alone make this seem like it should be a slam dunk, but unfortunately this production of Williams’ masterpiece is very far from the mark. Where the play is snappy, wickedly funny, devastating and claustrophobic, this production from Australian director Benedict Andrews is cold, sloppy, messy and uninspired. The carefully constructed dramaturgy of the play falls to pieces thanks to often baffling directorial decisions, led by a half-assed attempt to update the setting with design (the family use mobile phones and iPads, and the costumes are pure rich white Southern trash) without changing a word of the 50s text and references to match. There are likely legal reasons why the text can’t be changed, but this just makes the rubbish attempt at updating all the more incongruous. The design is modern, sparse and very open, and to make matters worse, the stifling evening heat that the characters continuously refer to is completely absent from the production.
These are just two of endless examples where there is a rift between the production and the play itself. Of course great works can be and should be up for reinterpretation, but Andrews often seems to be actively working against the play, obnoxiously ignoring the things in it that don’t fit his artistic vision. In the pre-show interview, he calls Williams “the great poet of desire”, and yet desire is not a part of the engine that makes ‘Cat’ work. In fact, it is the absence of desire that Williams is working with, so the badly manufactured desire and sexuality in the production feels entirely false, typified by the fact that the cast seem completely at sea. Miller is doing the best she can with a role as enormously iconic as Maggie, but without guidance through the unforgiving rhythms and accent that come with the character, she can barely keep it from being one-note. O’Connell fares far worse, wandering aimlessly through Williams’ text to the point of almost drowning in it. He can also barely maintain the Southern accent, and there’s almost no spark between this Maggie and Brick. The only actor that comes out of this well is Meaney, who shines as Big Daddy, able to find the heart that the production clearly does not care about finding itself.
Perhaps the worst thing about this production though is how ‘Cat’ has been filtered through a stifling heterosexual male lens. Brick is mostly naked for a large chunk of the production, which is an interesting and justifiable dramaturgical choice, but Andrews balances that with having Maggie appear naked as well, something far less justifiable, exploitative and often completely at odds with what the play is actually saying. Then again, should we be surprised from a man who opened his repulsive film ‘Una’ with objectifying male-gaze-heavy shots of a female sexual assault victim having a shower. And then there’s the queer subtext - perhaps the most famous aspect of ‘Cat’ - where Brick’s sexuality is called into question in a manner that is still powerful even today. Andrews though seems to cut if off at the legs, dancing around the question in order to preserve Brick’s manhood and ultimately not engage with one of the fundamental themes of the play - that lies and secrets kept quiet will rot us away. Again, the signs are there when none of the accompanying interviews even mention Williams’ homosexuality. It is as if the dominating heterosexual male paradigm has, as it has done with so much, taken something that doesn’t adhere to it narrative and lobotomised it to do so. The 1958 film may have removed the queer subtext completely, but this approach feels so much worse.
Of course great works can be and should be up for reinterpretation, but Andrews often seems to be actively working against the play, obnoxiously ignoring the things in it that don’t fit his artistic vision.
It’s clear that this production of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ thinks it’s very clever, with the direction parading around the stage showing off while asking the actors to do things that look neither truthful or natural (there’s a moment where Big Mama, played by Lisa Palfrey, goes and destroys a cake that is so bizarre as to feel robotic). Benedict Andrews is one of those directors who clearly believes himself greater and cleverer than the material he works with, which in my opinion, is one of the worst kind. For a play that burns with longing and pain and soul, this production just ends up being banal, obnoxious and aimless.