Regular contributor Nigel Watson reviews the recent screening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, part of our live cinema programme. Our next live cinema screening is NT Live: Julius Caesar on Thursday 22 March.
This live recording of the play, which ran at the Young Vic in 2017, is a powerful evocation of a family tearing itself apart on the night of Big Daddy Pollitt’s 65th birthday.
The stage setting is sparse, just a rectangular bed, a shower and a dressing table. The first hour mainly features Sienna Miller playing the part of Maggie the daughter-in-law of Big Daddy, who relentlessly talks to her alcoholic husband Brick, played by Jack O’Connell.
As Brick continually drinks his Echo Spring bourbon whisky, ‘Maggie the Cat’ as she describes herself, prances, stalks and sprawls across the stage. She tells of being irritated by his brother, Gooper’s (Brian Gleeson) ‘no-neck’ kids who run riot in Big Daddy’s plantation home in Mississippi.
Maggie finds it even more annoying that Brick is indifferent to Gooper’s plans to take over Big Daddy’s wealthy estate, and on an intimate level, Brick’s indifference in the bedroom. Brick simply stands under the shower letting the water flow over him, much like the way he lets his wife’s rant flow over him or even the flow of his own miserable existence.
We learn that the plaster cast on Brick’s foot is due to him spraining his ankle, after trying to leap over some hurdles. This underlines the fact that he is no longer the fit football pro he used to be due to age and alcohol, and the hurdles can also be a metaphor for his inability to stride through life without misfortune. It is not so much a matter of physical fitness – he has drastically changed since the death of his old mate and football partner, Skipper. He is now mentally and (temporarily) physically crippled.
Maggie resented Skipper’s relationship with Brick. She was jealous that they went on tour together and were extremely close. Her heavy hints that they were having a homosexual relationship moved Skipper to prove Maggie wrong by bedding her. When he failed to consumate the act with her, he became distraught and disturbed about his sexuality. The trauma was so profound that Skipper committed suicide.
Maggie loudly declares her love for Brick, but wonders about his commitment to her. She wants his baby, yet there is a barrier between them.
In the second, longer part of the play, Brick is confronted by Big Daddy (Colm Meaney) who is delighted that a recent medical examination has revealed he is clear of cancer, although it did show he has a spastic colon.
Big Daddy confronts Brick about him not making love to his wife, and wonders if he is homosexual. Brick says that his relationship with Skipper was untarnished by homosexual feelings or anything dirty or crude. He confesses that when Skipper telephoned him to express his deepest feelings, he hung-up on him. Now Brick feels so guilty about his friend’s subsequent suicide, that he has to keep drinking to the point when there is what he describes as a ‘click’ in his head.
Brick is plagued by the mendacity of the whole family. All their relationships are based on lies, dishonesty and deception. Big Daddy brags about being fit and taking control of the estate, yet Brick has to tell him he really does have terminal cancer. The original medical report was falsified to keep Big Daddy happy. This news is equally devastating for his wife Big Mama (Lisa Palfrey) who is so distraught that she smashes Big Daddy’s birthday cake into pieces. As their assumptions disintegrate, like the cake, Maggie lies about being pregnant with Brick’s baby. Gooper and his wife, Mae (Hayley Squires), know she is lying in order to ensure that Brick inherits the plantation.
The Reverend Tooker (Michael J Shannon) and Doctor Baugh (Richard Hansel) have relatively small walk-on parts, and both are found wanting in their ability to deal with the issue of imminent death. They are unable to provide any answers and simply scuttle off home. At times the noisy Gooper kids turn up to disrupt the adults, much like the celebratory birthday fireworks blasting off outside.
Director Benedict Andrews gives us a (literally at times) naked, raw and unflinching exploration of sexual repression, lust, greed and denial. Stripping the production down to the basics allows him to fully exploit the power of Tennessee Williams’ original story, and by the end the stage is strewn with the detritus (or as Big Daddy would call it ‘crap) of the messy lives of the protagonists.
The actors certainly wring out every ounce of pain and frustration that tortures this family, which is haunted by the painfulness of existence, the briefness of our mortality and the jeering face of death.
The live recording of the play, using close-ups, camera movement and editing takes us deeper into the emotional turmoil of the family, far more than by simply sitting in the stalls at the real Young Vic. It’s an exquisite blend of cinema and theatre that is engaging and exhausting for the viewer, although this is nothing compared to what the principal actors must have gone through to perform this emotionally draining three hour epic. Now we all know what it is like to be a cat on a hot tin roof…