When we hear ‘Tennessee Williams’ we think of suffocating repression, enervating disappointment, the blistering South. Dodging between the puddles of Newcastle towards the warm retreat of the playhouse, I couldn’t help but feel a long way from the Mississippi Delta. The English Summer seems to have breathed its last gasp for another year, yet one palpitating bath of heat remains in Northern Stage’s sweltering performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The stage as one enters is a cool oasis of white. White ten foot shutters, white bed, white sofa, white floor; the effect is mesmerising. Yet no sooner has Maggie ‘the Cat’ (Mariah Gale) walked on stage than the temperature begins to rise. The black slits of the shutters warm to a balmy orange, there is the sound of children playing outside, Brick (Charles Aitken) is drinking.
The staging is truly excellent, and we may excuse the relative inactivity of the crippled Brick and flouncing Maggie in the opening scene when there is so much to keep the eye interested. All the same, the arrival of Big Mama (Kim Criswell) and the rest of the family comes as something of a relief after half an hour plus of Gale’s convincing, but exhausting, heartache over Brick’s indifference towards her. This felt like something of a slow start to the play, as much the fault of Williams’ writing as Northern Stage’s production. A lot of exposition and a lot of hard looks. Brick’s outburst of anger was as much comic relief as it was a release of tension, with his wayward crutch accidently breaking a chair that was diligently ignored for the rest of the performance.
Aitken’s fallen jock, Brick, is an interesting character, a good study, I would suspect, for more than one member of the Boat Club. The deeply buried grief behind his (literally) debilitating alcoholism, slowly excavated with every measure of Echo Springs, was far more captivating than the disputes over the dying Big Daddy’s estate.
However it was Big Daddy (Daragh O’Malley) himself who, to my mind, gave the best performance of the night, one that I wish could have been prolonged, perhaps at the expense of Gale’s incessant repetition of “I’m a cat on a hot tin roof” (in case we forgot). As ‘big’ a presence onstage as his name demanded, the self-made plantation man was coarse, arrogant, and selfish (well, it is his birthday), but as Maggie so rightly put it, it’s hard not to like the old “Mississippi redneck”.
Perhaps ‘like’ is the wrong word. This seems a play in which we are not supposed to ‘like’ anyone. The violent Brick, the manipulative Maggie, compassionless Gooper (Matthew Douglas), and self-righteous Mae (Victoria Elliott); I don’t think I would invite any of them to my 65th birthday party (and neither, given the choice, would Big Daddy). Even Big Mama, loud, fat and jolly, is unjustifiably cold towards her first-born, Gooper, and Mae (it took me the best part of the performance to work out which of the two was the biological relative). Yet such is the nature of Williams’ drama. No relationship, not even within the family, is secure; no two characters are ever perfectly at ease. Indeed, the greatest virtue of this Northern Stage production is the genuine agitation, radiating from the shutters and prickling amongst the audience, evoked by the searing dynamic onstage.
Perhaps inevitably for a transatlantic performance, a little of the Southern fire is lost in translation. Brick cut a rather slim ex-football player, the accents of Mae’s “no-necked monsters” were unplaceable, and at times it seemed that even O’Malley was reprising the gruff Irish brogue of his Withnail and I cameo. Carrying off a credible Mississippi accent for two hours without slipping into a caricatured drawl is no mean fete, a difficulty that manifest itself in a notable number of slips in the script. Yet thankfully all of the major characters were convincing enough to avoid detracting from the performance.
All in all, a fine night out watching simmering family tensions come to the boil, that set, that began so pristine, soon satisfyingly littered with the debris of disintegrated relationships. They don’t take too kindly to mendacity down Big Daddy’s Plantation. Thank goodness for drizzle, and for Durham!