Hi, its now more than a week since I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Belvoir. With a Mardi Gras Parade and Party in between. Plus Library work, plus other shows, etc. The good news is Alison Croggon who eventually caved into the pressures of blogging after I think nine years of devotion, has been salvaged by ABC Arts Online and she has a chance to do what she is so good at in another place in cyberspace. A good and proper result. Meanwhile I struggle , but let’s not sond like a tin drum.
I thought this Simon Stone directed A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was one of the worst productions of a good script I have ever encountered. Stone is good and smart and I trust self-assured enuf to take a bitch slap from an old queen like me (on behalf of one of the great theatre queens – Tennessee Williams).
Consolation for Belvoir is that, the night I saw it, the production appeared to be well received by paying punters. But to someone like myself who has seen a lot of theatre I could only watch in silent horor as this poor little ship of lost and confused characters drove itself into an iceberg. I’ve not seen the play onstage before, but anyone who has seen the film is well aware of the potential to bring to life fabulous characters in a gut-wrenching version of ’a failing marriage’.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a 1958 American drama film directed by Richard Brooks. It is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Tennessee Williams adapted by Richard Brooks and James Poe. One of the top-ten box office hits of 1958, the film stars Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives.”
The play is fabulous and well-constructed, and the film has excellence written all over it. One could dare say the life story of the Hollywood marriage begins with Cat: Taylor (Maggie) and Newman (Brick) are incendiary in the intensity of their struggle to keep their young marriage afloat. In my view the sexiest paring ever in a Hollywood movie – maybe any movie. With the final collapse of the dream a mere eight years later with Elizabeth Taylor again, on this occasion an old marriage, paired with Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. A hundred-year history (say 1920 to 2020) squeezed into less less than a decade – 1958 to 1966 – thematically speaking. In the first we have a couple who can’t conceive because the man does not want to have sex with his wife anymore, not since his best mate has died. A homosexual undercurrent (this is Tennessee Williams remember), quite explicit in the play. And in the film version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we see an older couple initially grieving over the loss of their child and we end up discovering there probably never was one. I know Elizabeth Taylor is much admired for many reasons, but to be remembered forever she would only have had to complete these two roles. I saw a superb stage production of Who’s Afraid..in London some years back at the National starring Paul Eddington and Margaret Tyzack, directed by a woman and designed by a women. A ‘womanly perspective’ was perhaps a key to that production’s wonderful ‘reading’, along with two superb leading performances. So I know actors (apart from Newman and Taylor) can make this play work. In fact the Old Tote version in 1964 starring Jacqueline Kott, Alex Hay, Wendy Blacklock and Kevin Miles, directed by John Clark is still remembered by anyone who saw it as one of the highlights of the Old Tote’s era.
I was not expecting director Simon Stone to cast similarly on the pheromonal ‘richter-scale’ as the Cat film, but there is nothing at all sexy happening here between Jacqueline McKenzie (Maggie) and Ewen Leslie (Brick). They are two of our best actors. As much as a fan as I am of both, I could not see them in these roles – especially as a pair. And I am right, it doesn’t work out. Nopt necessarily their fault - they appear to get little guidance (or the wrong guidance) from the director. In fact I am starting to suspect Stone (and designer Robert Cousins) when evolving a new show simply ask themselves a hundred times over: what will the audience expect? Well let’s just darn well do the opposite. McKenzie’s greatest stage performance that I have seen in Sydney was her Joan of Arc – the very definition of NOT sexy. And having missed all Leslie’s Melbourne work of late, I go back to ‘his ‘star is born ‘ moment in The War of the Roses to know that he too is an actor of the highest calibre. My compliant has nothing to do with their private lives, personal bedroom skills, or even the casting here. But when I saw the McKenzie/Leslie combo I did think: ‘I hope the director knows what he is doing’.
On the other hand I was excited in advance in the casting of Anthony Phelan as Big Daddy and was disappointed to see him have to withdraw and be replaced by Marshall Napier – who did extremely well I must say at very short notice. There are other performances that hit the mark, noteably Lynette Curran as the begging mother and Rebecca Massey as the grasping sister-in-law.
The most obvious problem with this production and just about every person has mentioned it – is the loss of the USA Southern drawl replaced by regular modern Australian. Anyone who reads me would know I have no problem with such a shift in theory.
It’s also one thing to point to, in this instance, an artistic mistake. Quite another to unpack the reasons that might explain why. is it really or only a matter of accents? Such a discussion would easily fit inside the larger one we have been having over the past few years on the ripping up, cut-and-past, abridged, edited, updating etc of playwright’s scripts by a new generation of young Australian directors. But why in the case off Tennessee Williams does it come off as such a gaffe. One possibility lies in the intricacy of Williams’ surface – his dialogue (and with that the original accent that goes with it). It’s likely (but not a scientific fact) that if you strip any one of his William’s plays of its high camp-Rococo surface, what lies beneath all of a sudden appears pretty thin. A brilliant example of Marshall McLuhan’s 1960′s observation that ‘the medium is the message’. Extra reading includes Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘Against Interpretation’. The latter being one of the most obvious influences, however out of date, of my way with ‘criticism’.
For a clue to what I mean: have you have seen Almodovar’s All About My Mother? There are scenes of an actress on stage in a Madrid/Barcelona (I forget) production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s a very camp production (in a very camp film). You dont have to be very smart to predict the result of combining Williams and Almodovar in the cauldron of creativity. And more to the point just these few small scenes in the Almodovar movie carry a gravitas that on a set of comedic scales outweighs this current Belvoir production of A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in Sydney by a square root of infinity to one. And note: there were no southern accents: the production was in Spanish. Possibly trash Spanish, I wouldn’t know. But we knew even by way of gesture that we were watching something very camp – within camp. The whole film is camp: and, here’s the droll irony, you wouldn’t have heart if you didn’t want to cry at the end of this film. As we all should want to cry when we get to the end of pretty much any Tennessee Williams’ play.
So to say the Australian accents is the primary flaw may not be true. Perhaps better to ask where was the exotica, the frills, the ‘campness’ that by way of contradiction creates the birth of empathy and ultimately grieving in the bodies of production’s the audience.. And if you think ‘camp’ is a derogatory word holding little meaning beyond a slight to a person attempting to light a cigarette a la Bette Davis – go read the other Sontag essay (on that subject) I sited above.
I generally hold the view that you can do anything to or with a playwright’s script so long as it’s as good or better than what the playwright had in mind. In truth every production of every play, even every performance of the same production is different every night. So it’s not ‘difference’ from some sturdy template that’s been breached here.
Words (certainly my words here) are ill-equipped to carry the meaning I would wish to capture here – so bear with me as I stumble while I try. In a way it’s the same difference been believing in astronomy and being asked to believe equally in astrology. It’s by no means an effortless leap. And it takes us into the dark heart of making theatre. Can I defer to the words of a marketing guru from Conde Nast in New York, who came out to speak to those of us (back then) holed up in the grubby Atarmon Vogue office.
He told us that every magazine title had its own built-in DNA and anyone working on that particular magazine had to submit to that scientific fact. By way of evidence he pointed out that the wrong photo on a cover could cost a million sales and the right photo could add a million sales. And here’s the rub of it: take the photo that failed on one title (say Vogue) and put it on another one targeting a different audience (say TeenVogue), you could have another big sales hit. So while a director may quite rightly refuse to see him or herself as a servant to the so-called ‘author’s intentions’, they may not have been left off the hook to do whatever they want. If you wish to do anything you wan you need to include ‘the words’ on your ‘to-do’ list. Because somewhere in a pre-existing script lies a tiny nano-molecule of DNA which, if you don’t respect it, this thing as tiny and as important as the Higgs-Boson particle will rise up like a fire-spitting gorgon and drag you down into Dante’s sixth (Heresy) or eighth (Fraud) level of hell. Pardon my lavishness.
It’s a precarious case I put. And it goes hand in and with the other unscientific theory I have as of why we can still see in our minds-eye the best performances forever, while the rest fade away. I say they are printed like an x-ray on our souls. Well how flippy-floppy is that – yet in my view truer than true. Given that Simon Stone is still young and has had a few big hits as well as a couple of mega-misses I decline to pass any further judgement – for now. Other than he’s lucker than other directors of his potential in hitting the big time with so little behind him. Other than ask him to next time ponder prayer-like, as the Cardinals are doing right now in the Sistine Chapel, for even a glimpse of the theatre-art’s version of the Higgs-Boson particle in whatever the play-text he may wish to adore – or maul as is the case here. However Stone or any director goes about their theatre-making experiment, they need a collision – with something so tiny and not yet even certain to exist. But that collision remans a must. What we have here is a speedy whip around Switzerland and part of France – but no impact. Directors – you must look to the text’s DNA – once you have that in your grasp – party up as much as you like.
At the end of every production of any Tennessee Williams play the audience should be left to heroically weep. I cared nothing for these characters, nor their predicaments. Even the candy-coloured party curtain is a mistake – it’s too strong. Far too dominant. We in the audience suffer no grieving in this version of the Cat On a Hot Tin Roof story. That curtain – the production’s only visual totem – doesn’t work as irony. And it’s surely not trying to tell us that all is well in Big Daddy’s Lear-like kingdom. That we can’t see through the curtain’s shrill cheeriness to what lies behind is only one of this production’s many problems.