If you only know Tennessee Williams’ family drama from the lush Paul Newman-Elizabeth Taylor movie released just three years after the play’s Broadway debut, this bleakly powerful staging may prove revelatory.
How much might depend on your current tolerance levels for depictions of profoundly toxic men and the women who can’t help but orbit them.
Southern accents are retained but director Kip Williams and designer David Fleischer dispense with plantation chintz and obvious references to period. Gone also are the filmic trappings that have characterised Williams’ recent productions.
The Pollitt mansion is a Batcave affair of open spaces, hotel lobby-style furnishings and mirrored wardrobes. A mysterious black column plunges into the floor. Light spills down from industrial-scale fittings.
One thing that catches the eye is a liquor cabinet that opens up like an altarpiece.
It’s here that college athlete turned alcoholic Brick Pollitt (Harry Greenwood) performs his daily ritual: drinking whisky until he feels the “click” of the switch in his head, the one that “turns the hot light off and the cool one on, and all of a sudden there’s peace.”
It takes a lot to get that switch to flick these days – long enough, you’d think, to drive a vivacious young wife away. But no, Maggie (a brilliant Zahra Newman) is nothing if not hopeful: hopeful that some day Brick might sober up and father a child; hopeful that Brick’s agonising over the death of his uncommonly close college buddy Skipper will end.
But anything hopeful is unlikely to come out of this particular day. It is Big Daddy Pollitt’s 65th birthday and the family has gathered, determined to celebrate the old man’s lust for life while keeping secret the fact that this birthday party will be Big Daddy’s last.
Though scaled to fit this large venue, the performances are fine grained, with the first act dominated by Newman’s emotionally and physically demonstrative Maggie. She flips from fierce to fawning (and back) in a blink.
Hugo Weaving’s growling, animalistic portrayal of a hardscrabble millionaire mightn’t have the intimidating heft of Burl Ives, but his Big Daddy is a worthy addition to the actor’s recent gallery of magnetically unpleasant characters (including Arturo Ui, Endgame’s Hamm and his Macbeth of 2014).
Greenwood (Weaving’s son in real life) seems a touch recessive at the start but brings Brick firmly into focus in a long but riveting war of words with Big Daddy. Pamela Rabe is excellent as the sumptuously upholstered Big Mama and brings some unexpected levity to the proceedings.
Nikki Shiels is perfectly hideous as the gold-digging Mae, the inheritance-hungry and frighteningly fecund wife of Brick’s older brother Gooper (Josh McConville). Their brood of squealing “no-neck monsters” rightly make you want to have your tubes tied.
Peter Carroll’s comic timing and phrasing is such that his grovelling Reverend Tooker stopped the show on opening night at a moment that would otherwise be one of extreme high drama and emotion.
Special mention must go to composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory for his score of tumbling percussion and mournfully blaring horns.
The play’s final scene is a difficult one to pull off. Credulity has long since been stretched to breaking point. But this production finds a satisfying end point with Brick and Maggie at the lip of the stage with the agonies they have and will continue to endure etched in their faces, staring down a future few would dare be optimistic about.