It’s Big Daddy’s birthday, and the whole family’s descended on the ancestral Southern home to celebrate —and perhaps to sneak a peek at the patriarch’s last will and testament before it’s too late. Benedict Andrews directs the Young Vic’s revival of Tennessee Williams’s classic play about lies, secrets, and thwarted desire.
Sienna Miller stars as Maggie, wife of Brick (played by Jack O’Connell), Big Daddy’s favourite son. Miller is convincing in the role of the hardened survivor intent on insuring that her husband, and not his brother (a positively vibrating Brian Gleeson), receives the lion’s share of the inheritance once the terminally ill Big Daddy (Colm Meaney) shuffles off his mortal coil. Miller’s apparently boundless energy imbues Maggie with something of a feline alertness —and don’t be fooled by her endless chattering (in a somewhat dubious attempt at the accent) throughout most of the first act; this cat’s ready to bare her claws at any second.
O’Connell delivers quite a performance by doing very little (at least during the first act). His faraway stare is occasionally augmented by the lugubrious lifting of a drink to his lips or an unsuccessful attempt at lying down for a nap while his wife continues to go on about the herd of unlovable nieces and nephews stampeding through the old house. Maggie’s deliberate attempts at provocation seem to bounce off her semi-comatose husband until she finally hits the right nerve and Brick’s true nature is allowed to break the surface of his alcohol-induced calmness.
Hayley Squires is a revelation in the role of Mae, Maggie and Brick’s scheming sister-in-law. Her unimpeachable accent never falters, which is presumably part of the reason she’s able to embody the brash, uncultured, frankly terrifying Mae so perfectly. Lisa Palfrey pulls off an endearingly ditzy Big Momma with a touch of something darker lurking below the non-threatening exterior, while Meaney’s Big Daddy is in serious danger of stealing the entire show during his magnetic scene with O’Connell.
The production makes brave use of a contemporary, uncluttered design concept for a piece in which the idea of overwhelming, oppressive Southern opulence plays such a significant role, but the sterility of the space and the constant darkness at the edges of the set do contribute to that indispensable feeling of entrapment. While having O’Connell spend time under the spartan (but fully functional) shower at various points is an intriguing touch, it does mean that he’s not equipped with a microphone, which ends up hindering the sound quality on the recording. It becomes easy, however, to forget this technical problem when the sound of fireworks starts to punctuate Brick and Big Daddy’s terse conversation and ends up forming a brilliant accompaniment to the verbal salvos of their exchange. The very particular kind of doomed-family-gathering atmosphere evoked by this element of the sound design serves the play exceptionally well.
The Young Vic and the Young Ones’ reimagining of this much-loved and performed play takes the world of Tennessee Williams and subtly places it in a modern-day frame. (But then, mendacity never really goes out of style, does it?) This could not have been an easy task where such a well-known piece is involved and audience expectations are undoubtedly high. Watch this offering especially for Meaney’s and Squires’s fiery interpretations, and spend a few hours reflecting on how lies —to the self and to others— can keep families afloat for years before finally causing their total destruction.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is broadcast as part of the current NT Live season, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 4th and 5th of April. Book at sterkinekor.co.za.