Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Hugo Weaving in fine form can't save a show so overproduced

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
Tennessee Williams’ play is supposed to be exhausting, but this new show smothers emotion with its pyrotechnics

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens with Maggie singing a melancholy song while her husband Brick, the Southern football star turned drunk, showers. He is naked in a tiny glass box while water pulsates down. It’s an intoxicating beginning.

And yet that shower – while clever (the box is claustrophobic; so is Brick’s life; we get it) – ends up being just one of many production tricks that feel laboured and unnecessary.

Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play, later turned into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, deals with the lengths we take to lie to others and to ourselves. Big Daddy – the bullying patriarch of a large American cotton plantation – is dying of cancer. But his family, in a misguided attempt to allow him to enjoy one last birthday, tell him all is well and good. Meanwhile, Brick stifles his homosexual urges with booze and self-hatred, shunning his beautiful wife Maggie in the process.

Kip Williams, artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, won a Helpmann award for Suddenly Last Summer, another Tennessee Williams play he directed in 2015. In productions such as 2017’s Chimerica, too, he has shown he can navigate large themes and even larger casts with aplomb. Here, however, Williams gets lost: so eager is he to imprint his mark on the classic text that he all but drowns it.

Promotional material claims that this will be a “sultry furore of Southern fireworks”: indeed, bottles get smashed. There is foreboding, cinematic music. When Big Daddy and Brick have their showdown, and the two finally storm out, only the former’s birthday cake is left – lit up like a gaudy Christmas tree as the audience files away for the interval.

A birthday cake! With the candles snuffed out! Alone on the stage! Again, we get it.

Zahra Newman, Nikki Shiels and Harry Greenwood
Zahra Newman, Nikki Shiels and Harry Greenwood. The cast of the play seems a bit overwhelmed. Photograph: Daniel Boud

Most painful of all, however, is a giant wall of what seems to be football pitch floodlights, which blaze with angry incandescence at significant moments. Not only are the lights blinding, they are also blindingly obvious. Williams seems to have forgotten that sometimes the hardest of emotions are best felt quietly.

The set, designed by David Fleischer, does not help. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place on a hot summer’s evening in Mississippi. Reflecting this, the ever-brilliant Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy sweats and swelters, patting down his brow with his hankie. There is constant prattle about the heat.

But the stage does not seem to reflect such humidity. All shiny black walls, with a slick black drinks bar and a bed with black sheets, it feels like a throwback to the pimped up apartment of some 1990s Wall Street banker. It’s cool in aesthetic, stark, and a bit naff. Where is the lush wealth that everyone is fighting about? Where is the cloying weather? This does not feel like the Deep South.

The cast, too, seems overwhelmed. Book of Mormon’s Zahra Newman has a beautiful voice – used in that initial song – and in the challenging first act gives it her all. She’s sassy, sexy, and meows a lot. True distress, however, is lacking: of a woman who is deeply alone, and significantly, childless, in an unhappy marriage and grasping, power-hungry family.

Harry Greenwood as Brick (who is Weaving’s son in real life as well as in the play) also cannot match up to what the character demands of him. We need to believe that Brick is Big Daddy’s favourite for a reason and that Maggie’s desperation for physical affection, indeed for love, is about more than siring an heir. In the film, Paul Newman is moving as the fallen hero because you can see how once he was strong, and upright, and attractive and good. A golden boy gone bad. Here, Greenwood plays him as a drip. Lacking gravitas and charm, it is unfathomable that this is a man who, not long ago, was desired deeply.

Watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an exhausting experience: and it should be. These are deeply unhappy people, greedy and broken. Williams succeeds, at least, in showing us a squabbling family, including five brattish red-haired children. Peter Carroll as Reverend Tooker – an oblivious, well-meaning priest – adds some much-needed comic relief.

Weaving, too, is first-rate. But even he, as fine an actor as he is, cannot save a production so overproduced and yet so empty. There is just too much shouting and smashing, too many floodlights and, yes, too many fireworks. In trying to amplify emotions with pyrotechnics, Williams has smothered them.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is showing at Sydney Theatre Company until 8 June


Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

The GuardianTramp

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