by Tennessee Williams: Novello Theatre, London.
There was a feline fest last night with a fiery cat and bad-tempered lion pacing the Novello stage. Sanaa Lathan and James Earl Jones as the respective cat and lion stand out in Tennessee Williams’s play of simmering and searing family tensions.
To mention director Debbie Allen’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has an all-black cast seems irrelevant. This is a universal family. Dysfunctional. A cauldron of lies, denials, and frustrated sexuality. Allen’s direction skilfully evokes the strained and pained relationships of Williams’s masterpiece.
With the action shifting from 1955 to the 1980s we can now accept the premise of an affluent African-American family. And, despite our memories believing that the eighties were more accepting of a gay man, there was still the palpable tension in Brick’s oppressed sexuality.
First seen on Broadway last year, a London audience can now witness the powerful presence of James Earl Jones who bestrides the stage like a colossus, reprising his magnificent Broadway performance as the terminally ill patriarch, Big Daddy. At times Jones superbly hovers between tyrannic control and masculine, ailing, vulnerability; his contemptuous disregard for the rest of his family and tender attempts at reconciliation with Brick are skilfully controlled. However, Jones does growl and snap like a lion with more than just a thorn in his paw, occasionally receiving inappropriate laughter from the audience.
Sanaa Lathan’s as Maggie sensuouslyleads the way in a sexy and hypnotic opening scene, oozing frustration. We feel her dispossession, both in her need for physical companionship and in her childlessness, as well as her desperation to save a doomed relationship with her husband. Adrian Lester begins awkwardly; his Brick, with his self-loathing turmoil and retreat into alcoholism, comes across as a brooding bore with a little too much self-pity. It is not until act two and the fraught father-son confrontation that Lester raises his game. This must be due, in some way, to the influence of Earl Jones. The two now complement each other in their personal battles to deny what Williams termed the “inadmissible thing”. The tension builds boldly, delving through the depths of denial between Brick’s latent sexuality and Big Daddy’s fatal illness, and reaches a revelatory climax.
In the style of a Synge drama there were moments of comedy relieving the pressurised atmosphere in Williams’s tragic milieu. Traditionalists may feel this was out of place, but with a wonderful supporting cast, particularly from Phylicia Rashad as the long-suffering Big Mama and Peter de Jersey as the ill-favoured Gooper, the heat suitably simmersand boils to the curtain.