There’s an old saying that England and the United States are two countries separated by a common language, but we’re also actually two countries separated by nuanced cultural and regional differences that outsiders can’t quite understand. That is immediately apparent in the recent Young Vic production of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Like last season’s mess of a Hedda Gabler, this production attempts to bring the story into the present era with very muddled results. Director Benedict Andrews mentions in the interval interview that he sees the play as a brilliant stripping bare of people’s internal emotions and bringing them out into the open. And he’s right about that. You can see it in his direction here. He gets some powerful if entirely wrongheaded performances out of his lead actors. And while what happens on the stage is quite coherent, it makes little sense in the modern era and absolutely fails at portraying the portion of Southern Culture that Williams was actually writing about.
Williams is a writer, like Faulkner, like O’Connor, that is writing about a bunch of white folks hanging on to the antebellum past. This is the genteel old-fashioned South that Margaret Mitchell looked back on with great nostalgia in Gone With the Wind. This is the landed, aristocracy of the South that can trace its roots back to some founder of some town and his huge number of slaves. The “War of Northern Aggression” might have been over more than 80 years when Williams was writing, but the South of the 1950s hadn’t seen the Civil Rights movement and still cared about things like pedigrees and who your people were back quite a few generations.
And this obsession with propriety and being viewed with respect by your neighbors and proper breeding is a central conflict in the play, which this production entirely ignores. Because while Williams was writing about the genteel South, the folks at Young Vic have taken their cue from Mama June and Honey Boo Boo and turned the whole lot of them into crass and disgusting nouveau-riche vulgarians.
And by doing so, this makes a lot of the conflict in the play not make any sense at all.
In Williams play, as written, it’s Big Daddy who is nouveau-riche and vulgar. And ONLY Big Daddy. He is a constant source of embarrassment to his wife, who is doing her best to fit in with Southern high society. She’s trying to be on the right side of the church. She insists no one swears in her presence (they have Big Mama swear in this production, totally out of character.) His children are both college educated and successful and have married well. Both to girls they met at Old Miss. Meaning both Maggie the Cat and the horrid Mae ALSO are college educated, which in the 1950s really meant something. Poor women seldom attended college in those days and no one who did attend wished to be thought vulgar.
Plus, there is no way that any family in this day and age with as much money as they are supposed to have would be living in an unairconditioned plantation house like everyone is in the play. Brick’s constant showering makes no sense in the modern era with central air.
There’s a ton of unnecessary nudity (both Brick and Maggie have to get their kit off at multiple points). Though the way Sienna Miller handles it is wonderful. It makes her portrayal of Maggie even more desperate and pathetic. There’s no reason for O’Connell as Brick to be naked, but I guess the production is trying to be equitable.
The other main conflict of the play, Brick’s descent into alcoholism after the death of his friend, Skipper, also makes little sense in this day and age. Or at least it doesn’t in this production.
It’s another way that better understanding of American culture could have helped the director’s choices. Brick’s pretty clearly gay and in denial in the text. Especially when we hear Maggie’s evidence about how great he was in bed because he wasn’t really into it. Brick insists what he felt for Skipper was “pure and clean” and that their relationship was like that and that he’s not gay. But nobody mourns as much as Brick when their friend dies. They mourn like Brick when their spouse dies.
Brick has some lines that are horrible examples of toxic masculinity, even while talking to his father, who shows love and respect for the gay men that left him their plantation and made the whole family rich. Big Daddy is actually telling Brick it’s ok to be gay, but Brick can’ t hear it. Some understanding of American football culture could have informed this part of the play greatly. It is STILL not ok to be gay in the NFL here. The NFL is notable for its rates of spousal abuse and animal abuse and homophobia. So, playing up Brick’s football past even more could have made this part make a bit more sense. It was just a given in the 1950s that it was normal to be homophobic when Williams wrote the lines. For it to work in the modern era, there has to be much more to it. But in this production, they just sort of lay there, not that O’Connell as Brick didn’t try.
Despite the muddled mess that this makes outside its historical context and outside its rigid class structure, the cast put in some excellent performances. Sienna Miller’s Maggie was clearly desperate and bitter, but you could also see the vivacious party girl that had attracted Brick in the first place. Her Maggie is very athletic and physical and she very much commands the stage with interesting action during the very, very long monologues that are the hallmarks of Williams’ work. Her accent was too lower class, but so was everyones. It was at least southern American.
Jack O’Connell as Brick had a hard row to hoe in the first place as Brick’s self-pitying is hard to not make unlikable. He didn’t quite manage it here. He managed real despair when he was talking about Skipper but mostly just seemed petulant and pouty most of the rest of the time. Not like someone decathecting. His accent was also clearly Irish in spots. Irish plus the lowest sort of West Virginia backwoods hillbilly. That’s not the accent of a genteel southern boy who went to the best private schools and then Old Miss.
Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy was just wonderful. Big Daddy can be an unlikeable character in the wrong hands, but Meany made him warm. You could see that he had trouble talking about his feelings, but that he certainly had them and actually cared about things. Certainly, Brick and certainly the legacy he’d built.
Lisa Palfrey as Big Mama by way of Mama June was an amazing performance. Her breakdown when Big Daddy’s cancer diagnosis is revealed was superb. And her hand-wringing fluffiness the rest of the time was delightful. I wish she could have played Big Mama as the genteel woman she was meant to be instead of the miniskirted buffoon they made her.
Haley Squires was perfectly odious as Sister Woman, Mae, Brian Gleeson was nearly too nice as brother Gooper. And though he had few lines, Michael J. Shannon’s horrid Preacher with the obsession of getting money for the church was just like every TV charlatan preacher that’s ever come out of the South. The children were nightmare-inducing.
All in all, the actors did what they could, but the production and direction lacked a fundamental understanding of the American South that made it not work.
Photos by Johan Persson