Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the Mississippi Delta anymore. There’s not a cotton plant in sight.
It’s all glass, marble, flat screens and sleek Scandinavian furniture in Sydney Theatre Company boss Kip Williams’ revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Big Momma’s European shopping spree has produced a strange modernist aesthetic (set design by David Fleischer) for her son Brick’s marital bedroom, floating in a vast black void that adds to the discombobulation.
It doesn’t look like the 1950s of Tennessee Williams’ original plot. And it certainly doesn’t feel like a Mississippi summer. While Momma’s clan all complain about the oppressive heat, still in that loose-jawed southern drawl, clad in period finery (Mel Page’s costumes), there’s no sense of how suffocating that is. And what is a Williams family melodrama without the hallucinogenic suffocation?
Not that we need another naturalistic 20th century American drama – as awarded as it is familiar – behind a white picket fence. But this feels over-designed. Or, in a way, under-designed. There’s jazz standards and cacophonous incidental crashes (Stefan Gregory designed the sound) and blinding strobe lights (Nick Schlieper) but no clear artistic narrative.
Can you ever really successfully transplant Cat to modern times anyway? The story of a man-attracted young man so abhorred by his feelings he drinks to forget feels, thankfully, nostalgic. And take that away and all you’re left with are men punishing women for the challenge to their masculinity and supremacy. It can be a lot of misery for not a lot of revelation.
To be clear, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a Great Play. Then and now. It can speak to the torment of same-sex attraction, still, the threat to masculinity and patriarchy, certainly now, to loveless bonds and the women who must hold it all together, to the lies that can malignantly waste a family. I just don’t think this production does much of that.
There’s too much air, too much space on Fleischer’s set; too little focus in Williams’ direction. The cast, mostly excellent, have to work too hard to create the tension.
Hugo Weaving gets top billing as Big Daddy, the dying plantation patriarch, but only gets around an hour of the three on stage to strut his stuff. Boy, though, does he strut. He starts act two at a monstrous 10 and keeps it revving in the red throughout, igniting fireworks through sheer presence.
It overpowers Brick, played by the generally winning Harry Greenwood, who gives us quieter, more coiled despair without some of the high-wire danger we’ve seen from others in the role (Ewan Leslie at Belvoir in 2013, say, or Jack O’Connell in Benedict Andrews’ London production broadcast to Australian cinemas in 2017).
As Maggie, Zahra Newman bounces on that proverbial roasting roof with all the energy of a kitten with hyperactivity disorder. Her act one effective monologue is the category 5 cyclonic performance that makes this play such a joy. When she laments her lot as a burnt-pawed pussy under the feet of a disinterested Brick, the sexual frustration, clashing with the desperation to hold onto what she’s got, is palpable. (The awarded musical theatre star also croons Cry Me A River at the start of the play, which only makes you miss any further musical interjection from her.)
Pamela Rabe has done fading southern belle in A Glass Menagerie, to great acclaim, and here plays another of Williams’ mothers rendered somewhat pathetic. It’s a less meaty role but Rabe, of course, makes the most of it. Nikki Shiels and Josh McConville are similarly well cast as Mae and Grooper. Treasured Peter Carroll steals a scene or two as the resident priest, though I found it more rhythmically disruptive than charming.
Williams has also cast a gaggle of snotty children, who add plenty of noise and movement but not much else. Like other aspects of this production, it can feel like clutter obscuring a great work of drama.
Main image: Zahra Newman and Harry Greenwood in STC’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 2019. Photo ©Daniel Boud
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof plays the Roslyn Packer Theatre until June 8