By Rosie Niven
Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out and death’s the other.
If any quote can summarise Tennessee Williams’s 3 hour epic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it’s this one. The 1955 play features a family portrait of lies, alcohol and talks of the inevitable as the family celebrates Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. Hoping to let him enjoy a final birthday, the family chooses not to let him know that he’s dying. Filled with examinations of shame, intimacy, failure and loss, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is filled with drama from start to finish.
There was a lot of excitement around this production with the announcement that Kip Williams would be directing the story. Kip has proven himself to be a master of the epic drama, with his electrifying production of Chimerica in 2017 and his radical staging in 2015 of another of Tennessee Williams’ works, Suddenly Last Summer. From the minute you step into the space, it is clear his grand ideas have no intention of haltering: David Fleischer’s stark set that exposes the entire space is overpowering, and the pieces that are used are extravagant. It feels overwhelming and yet so empty at the same time. Together with Nick Schlieper’s theatrical lighting design and Stefan Gregory’s ominous drum beats, the design of this production is, as Schlieper says, “like nothing Tennessee Williams would have ever seen on stage.”
What is impressive about this script is its ability to strip down all the unnecessary extras and showcase the endurance and talent of these actors in their best light. All three scenes (and there are only three scenes in the entire 3 hour show) feel like marathons, ones that we’re running with these characters, but with the right actor these marathons can feel like a breeze. Two actors achieved that effect within this particular production: Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy, and Zahra Newman as Maggie. Weaving dominates the stage from the moment he enters, relentlessly driving through the text while still retaining a high level of nuance in his character. Similarly, Zahra Newman captures the audience by not only mastering the majority of the text in the first act (bar a few interruptions from various family members this is an epic monologue that lasts almost 60 minutes) but by giving Maggie a vivacity that makes her so enjoyable to watch. Whenever either of these actors take the stage, an hour passes in what feels like only 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, when actors shine so brightly, it can often cast a shadow over the rest of the cast. With such powerful performances from Weaving and Newman, many of the other performances fell to the sidelines, this disparity only further exaggerated by the varied stylistic choices made by the actors as some chose to lean toward a realistic characterisation while others leant towards farce. Adding to this dissonance, a slew of different accents adds to the confusion leaving the audience questioning the authenticity of this world. With so many chaotic, emotional scenes one after the other, we begin to lose the plot and lose investment. These heightened scenes also meant that much of the text was lost amongst the cacophony.
Sydney Theatre Company’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof makes bold choices, but it is not clear why it was necessary to bring this production back to the stage. After an unsuccessful run at Belvoir in 2013, if the show is to be brought back it needs to be with new ideas and with concrete relevance to a 2019 audience. While I loved many separate elements of this production, the show lacked cohesion, and although it definitely wasn’t the flop that Belvoir’s production was so widely described as, with the big names that this show was billed on and the talent behind them, I was simply left wanting so much more from, especially from this cast and crew.
Photo Credit: Daniel Boud
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.