(This is almost certainly my last review for 2009 and probably my final post for the year as well.)
For many, Elizabeth Taylor is synonymous with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Despite personal tragedy in production, her sexy, smouldering Maggie draped herself across a film full of long, still shots, and the theatrical nature of the script often led her to play directly to the camera and audience in such a way as to immediately sympathise with the ignored wife and give in to her charms and appeals. Any new production, therefore, must find a way to keep the film as far from the audience’s mind as possible during the play.
In a stunning new production, director Debbie Allen (most infamous for her choreography in Carrie) has done just that by casting an all-Black family in her Cat. While purists may show disdain at Allen’s edits, mostly to reflect racial issues and salt up a bit of Big Daddy’s language, the new Cat is a fascinating view of a family and an era in decline.
Moved to the 1980’s, Brick (Adrian Lester) is a football player-turned-announcer now consumed with apathy and alcoholism after the death of his best friend and possible lover Skipper. He has cut off his wife, Maggie (Sanaa Lathan) in every way possible, but most importantly in the bedroom. As Big Daddy (James Earl Jones) turns 65, word spreads through the family that he is dying of cancer - though the doctors have told him and Big Mama (Phylicia Rashad) that it was just a scare. Armed with the news, Brick’s older brother Gooper (Peter de Jersey) and his wife Mae (Nina Sosanya) are going full on for inclusion in Big Daddy’s yet-unwritten will, throwing their children and traditional family values in the faces of their opposition.
Williams’ play is a curio, not just for the way its repetitive style of dialogue would be co-opted and expanded by later generations (compare Maggie and Brick’s “Are you listening?” “I hear you.” with the “Talking/Telling” aspects of Glengarry Glenn Ross), but also for its portrayal of Southern traditions in decline and the needs of polite society to sweep anything undesirable - be it marital issues or homosexuality - under the rug only to watch as the house of cards collapses when the dirt dissolves the foundation.
Indeed, there have been many complaints among visitors for how the new time period weakens the crux (Brick’s possibly sexual relationship with Skipper), but the cultural shift of casting it in a Black family keeps it up: the role of the Church and traditional family structures are central in the African-American community, and sexual tolerance is still far behind that of society at large.
As far as Allen’s cast and direction go, Lester’s Brick is the picture of apathy: given over entirely to the bottle, Brick is a man of pride with nothing to be proud of. He’s flat, smooth, and devoid of emotion for anything except a drink and his memories - a calm amongst the storm around him. Lathan’s Maggie carries the first act, and demands both the audience’s sympathy and their annoyance: we can side with her while seeing why Brick wants her to go away and let him drink. The stars, however, are Rashad’s Big Mama, a well-meaning but intellectually lacking matron whose traditional power is shadowed entirely by the whirlwind of James Earl Jones’s firebrand of a Big Daddy.
To be honest, Jones was the selling point of the play for me going in, and the man could read the phone book for three hours and I’d still be enraptured, so take it for what it’s worth. However, to see a legend up close in one of the great American dramas is always a joyous experience, especially one which allows us both to see the voice of Darth Vader tearing into the fools he suffers in the name of polite society and for his delivery of the classic lines on mendacity.
So, needless to say, the production could do little wrong in my eyes, and it delivered by keeping me enraptured for the entire three hour runtime (one proper interval, one short one between the second and third acts.) While the new Cat is ambitious on multiple levels, it succeeds at two key aspects at the core: to bring a new, fresh angle to the text and to present the play well. See this while you can, and rejoice in the power of the straight play (especially with the Enron and Jerusalem transfers just around the corner.)
OK, so there’s one thing that did keep me from being fully engrossed in the show for all three hours, namely where I was sitting. It’s possible to get tickets in the slips for £10 on Lastminute, which is the only way I could afford a ticket, and depending on where you are (mine wasn’t TOO bad) you’ll miss a good deal of the action and when the eyes wander, so does the mind. The effect wasn’t as bad as at Arcadia, but the easily distracted should definitely shell out the extra cash for central seating, as both sides will face significantly restricted views (seats 1-12 lose being able to see the bar, seats 13-24 won’t see the dressing table.)