"What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?" From the glossy sheen of the Young Vic's production of the classic Tennessee William's play, it seems Maggie has little to complain about, and yet the complexities that plague her relationship with her husband Brick and everyone who surrounds them soon unravel. Directed by Benedict Andrews, this production aims to update the material to a modern setting, whilst retaining the spirit of the play that has kept it popular since it's 1955 premiere.
Benedict Andrew's modern approach to the production brings the timelessness of greed to the forefront. He has a delicate but distinctive hand, with a realism that sympathises with the male characters of the play. Magda Willi's design lends a hand to the contemporary feel of the play; the deep gold of the backdrop, the satin sheets on the bed, the skinny rainfall shower standing solitary in a corner, the glittering black, blue and gold dresses, and the white neon frame of the stage (perhaps symbolising the idealism of marriage). Even with ornate glass vases of flowers, it looks like a minimalist stage. The atmosphere created through Andrew's direction and the design is that of an awkward yet extravagant party in a London townhouse.
At the heart of this party is Jack O'Connell as Brick, whose broken leg requires everyone to come to his bedroom for the celebrations of his father's birthday. Meanwhile, he hobbles around the stage drinking and trying to reach the point of being so drunk he no longer acknowledges those around him. In the first act, his interaction Sienna Miller's Maggie is minimal, but O'Connell gives a performance of someone weighed down so much by his overbearing wife that he finds himself in a never-ending cycle of communication breakdown and resentment. For an act where he delivers so few words, it is an incredibly impactful performance, one that at once makes you resent him on Maggie's behalf and also understand his isolation.
Miller herself really carries the weight of that heavy and extensive dialogue; it is quite a challenge to hold that much of the stage for so long and remain engaging, and yet I found myself hanging on Maggie's every word as she becomes more and more desperate for her husband to respond to her. Her Southern American accent is charming and seductive and gives a sense that she is both villain and victim. As the play continues into the second half, her voice is somewhat lost amongst the cacophony of others.
Colm Meaney's "Big Daddy" is resentful and lonely, and whilst I was not wholly convinced by his emotional reaction after learning about his doomed predicament, his chemistry with O'Connell is intimate and moving. After he exits the stage, I found my investment started to wain. Having unlikable characters inhabit the stage is rarely a bad thing, but owing either to the combined performances of Miller, Lisa Palfrey (Big Mamma) and Hayley Squires (Mae), Andrew's direction, or William's legendary play itself, they all make for very, very trying company.
Whilst I suspect they all contribute, this is my first encounter with this play, and my instinct is that all the characters would be at least a tad unbearable no matter who was handling the material. Many people like to discuss the themes of homosexuality in a play from the 1950s, which are indeed admirable and add unexpected layers, but I confess the themes of male disgust and privilege pitched against female greed emotional demand left a bitter taste in my mouth. For fans of Tennessee Williams, this production is performed, directed and designed beautifully, but for those who aren't, there is little victory in tolerating a group of such unlikeable people. Three stars.
Disclaimer: this production ran from July to October 2017, but is now being broadcast internationally. Also, there are no whispers from the crowd this week as I was the only one in the theatre, which was jolly good fun by the way.