So evocative are Ben Collins’ sound and David Murray‘s lighting designs for Kate Cherry‘s excellent production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that you can almost hear the skeeters hummin’ on the honeysuckle vine, feel the cooling breeze off the Delta, and smell the coming storm’s electricity in the oppressive air. The crackle of electricity within the Pollitt family home and the heady odour of lies and falsehood that lie at the thematic heart of this masterpiece of modern drama – the ‘smell of mendacity’ – are also wonderfully captured in the action played out with gusto in QTC’s co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company.
Other reviewers of this production have referred to or compared it with the heavily adapted 1958 film version which starred Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives. The movie seems to have left an almost-indelible mark on the work despite the screenplay’s being openly scorned by Williams. References to the repressed homosexuality of the former footballer Brick were largely omitted from the screenplay which also included a heavily reworked third act reconciliation between father and son. The play was first directed for the Broadway stage by Elia Kazan in 1955, and went on to take out the Pulitzer Prize for drama in that year. However, and at Kazan’s urging, Williams substantially revised the work for a revival in 1974, and this is the version which has usually been produced since that time. This production may nod towards the film in its look but, make no mistake, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a great play of classic proportions and classic themes; it almost needs the stage’s size and accommodation for its playing out.
As with classical Greek drama, some of the greatest American plays are set within the family circle where love and hatred slug it out in power plays between the generations. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the best. Like the Greek plays, it’s also true to the unities – set in one place over 24 hours and with one significant narrative line. Bruce McKinven‘s atmospheric set of southern gentility – broken rafter beams, faux Greek columns, and the biggest southern moonrise through trees shrouded in Spanish moss outside the shutters – creates a world that evokes grandeur and decay and death.
The Pollitts meet at the family estate on the Mississippi Delta to celebrate the 65th birthday of family patriarch Big Daddy (John Stanton). Elder son Gooper (Hugh Parker) and wife Mae (Caitlin Beresford-Ord) are accompanied by their awful tribe of five children, described by Brick’s wife Maggie in one of the play’s oft-quoted, unforgettable phrases as ‘no-neck monsters.’ Brick (Tom O’Sullivan) the younger son, former football player and golden child of both parents is laid up with a broken ankle, the result of a drunken spree the previous night on the high school athletic track. Things are not good between Brick and Maggie (Cheree Cassidy). In fact, the relationship seems terminal. Everyone knows they are not sleeping together. Maggie disgusts Brick and Brick’s disgusted with himself; he drinks – no, he swills booze – to escape the reality that is his denied homosexuality and the suicide of his friend Skipper. There’s also the barely-contained warfare between the brothers’ wives who are jockeying for Big Daddy’s favours – he has yet to settle the issue of inheritance upon his sons. Unknown to him and his wife Big Momma (Carol Burns) Big Daddy has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Gooper is determined to get the will signed, sealed, and delivered in his favour as soon as possible. Brick, to Maggie’s frustration seems indifferent to his brother’s scheming. That’s the background; intense, you say? See what I mean about the Greeks? In a night of combative face-offs and revelations, many unpalatable truths are dragged out and aired but, eventually, it is a brilliant lie that wins the day for Maggie ‘the cat’ – no spoilers here. It’s such an utterly ironic and wonderfully outrageous piece of one-upmanship that you almost feel like cheering, but the taste of ashes in the mouth is too strong. If you really need to know, you can read the plot synopsis here.
Great plays contain great roles, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has more than its fair share: Big Daddy and sharp and sexy Maggie (his polar equal), feckless Brick and matriarch Big Momma. Great roles provide enormous challenges for actors; John Stanton’s atypical, silky-smooth Big Daddy and Carol Burns’ Big Momma – all huff and puff energy, flapping hands and no-nonsense y’all – are simply outstanding. Cheree Cassidy and Tom O’Sullivan, by comparison, are almost eclipsed by the power and stage presence of both Mr Stanton and Ms Burns. Ms Cassidy’s Maggie is more sultry vamp and gorgeous southern belle than conniving cat, whilst Mr O’Sullivan’s Brick seems defeated, exhausted, and almost one-dimensional – at least at the start. Fair enough – the first act is all reactive for Brick as Maggie sets the scene for the action to come. It’s not until the magnificent duel between father and son in Act 3 that Mr O’Sullivan’s playing rises to its best and then it is very good indeed.
Ms Cherry’s spirited production opens up the pity and the poetry in Tennessee Williams’ magnificent play. It’s an altogether absolutely satisfying piece of theatre that plays on every one of your senses and all of your nerve endings. Get along.
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof plays at QPAC’s Playhouse until 3 September. Details on the Company website.
Director: Kate Cherry, Designer: Bruce McKinven, Lighting Designer: David Murray, Sound Designer: Ben Collins
Cast includes: Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Cheree Cassidy, Tom O’Sullivan, Hugh Parker, John Stanton, Carol Burns, Paula Nazarski, Daniel Murphy, Mabel McCormack, Riley Brooker, Isabel Knights, Damon Lockwood, Millicent O’Hara, Georgie Rowlands, Ethan Sutton, Dylan Vaughan-Jones and Cai Witt