January 10, 2002: Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
An audience, unusual for matinees, half-full of young women who came to see the latest “hunk,” Brendan Fraser, as Brick. Frances O’Connor, the Maggie, was every bit a match for him and more. Despite the allure, Brick is a somewhat thankless part: how do you look sullen and resentful for three acts, averting your eyes all the while? Fraser makes what he can of it, and, to do him justice, he gives a convincing, partly pathetic portrayal of one of Williams’s branded, doomed heroes, in this case almost inarticulate with guilt and self-disgust. Much of the play consists of two duos: in Act I, Brick and Maggie; in Act II, Brick and Big Daddy. Frances O’Connor’s Mississippi accent wasn’t flawless but was still very good, and her vitality and sexual allure, all the more alluring because of her deep frustration, was very well portrayed. Act I is a near-monologue for her, and she did it brilliantly, with all the cat-like qualities Williams calls for. Ned Beatty, an American actor, had — not surprisingly — the best accent, but his Big Daddy was his own authentic character, different from, and quite independent of, Burl Ives’s original. (I’ve always thought that Ives, who was first a folk-singer and only secondarily an actor, was good at blustering and enrichment, but couldn’t quite convince as the owner of a multiple-thousand acre plantation; he had a certain static quality that didn’t become too distracting, however, because — this is the film version I’m remembering — we were watching Paul Newman’s Brick anyway, for the most part.) Where the scene with Maggie builds slowly but constantly to a climax, the scene with Big Daddy had greater variation in pace and intensity, controlled in a masterful way by Beatty. Another reason Brick is hard to play is that he is for the most part passive and reactive, forced to respond by his counterparts until he erupts in violent outbursts and then pours himself still another shot of the hard stuff.
Part of the perverse attraction of this play is Williams’s over-the-top portrayal of high-class (planter class, as it were) red-neck mendacity — a quality discussed by Big Daddy and Brick and exemplified in Brick’s elder brother Goober and his rapidly increasing family, hateful down to the last shrill kid. It’s part of Williams’s Southern Gothic sensibility to develop this backdrop for a drama that in its essence is small, private, and intimate. He does both things well, and at length; the performance ran a good three hours, before a very appreciative audience old and young, which applauded loudly at the end of each act.
This production is light-years away from another production of Williams I saw years ago at the National Theatre, a rendering of Night of the Iguana that left almost everything to be desired, especially the awkward, bogus deep-South accents. In the last decade British actors have had some expert vocal coaching, or else the ever-expanding international theatrical scene has had a beneficial effect. Every actor now has three careers going more or less simultaneously, in film, theatre, and television. You can see the effects, mostly salutary, I think, of film experience on stage actors. They know now that a slight turn of the head or re-direction of the eyes is all you need, even in a good-sized theatre, to make a response or reaction register; and yet they haven’t lost the ability to “take the stage,” not in the old Edmund Kean way but in a more modern idiom or style, taking the audience with them as they traverse the set from center to periphery (or vice-versa). The tripartite career is putting huge stress on repertory companies like the National Theatre or, even more so, the Royal Shakespeare Company, since actors are ever more reluctant to agree to an eighteen-month contract in the service of perfecting an ensemble acting troupe. But then it’s idle or foolish to expect that things will ever stay the same for long, whether in the theatre or in life.