James McDonald has revived a rarely performed Tennessee Williams play and thrown at it an impressive cast and stunning set. The result certainly makes the best of the material and whilst this play is not seen as one of Williams’ classics, there is still much to enjoy.
Drawn from Williams’ own experience of being holed-up in tropical hotel at the outbreak of World War 2, the action is set in a ramshackle Mexican hotel in 1940. A strange mix of characters are thrown together and bond over the course of a stormy evening.
Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) is a disgraced former minister, turned tour guide, who has sought refuge at his friend Fred’s hotel, only to find that Fred has died and his younger widow Maxine (Anna Gunn) is now in charge. Shannon brings with him a tour party of Baptist women including 16-year-old Charlotte (Emma Canning) who he has already seduced and her matronly chaperone, Ms Fellows (Finty William), who is determined to punish Shannon for his many misdemeanours. Also guests are four Germans, jovially celebrating news of the London blitz, and Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams), a painter and sketch artist, with her 97-year-old grandfather Nonno (Julian Glover), who is declared to be the world’s oldest living practising poet.
As Maxine pursues Shannon, he becomes more manic and increasingly desperate, whilst he bonds with an unlikely kindred spirit in the seemingly chaste Hannah, causing Maxine to target her new rival. The Mexican staff at the hotel have caught an iguana and tied it up under the veranda so it can be eaten later, so like everyone else in the play, the animal is desperate to escape its bonds and find freedom.
Williams wit is razor sharp through most of the play, railing at God, who he calls a senile delinquent, religion, morality, human weakness and in particular the mental sparing between Shannon and Hannah is an absolute delight. What does feel dated is the marked division of the female characters into either sexual predators, or asexual spinsters, with Shannon the sun in the middle that they all must orbit. There is a risk that the women in the play can only be seen as either the better angels of Shannon’s mind or his temptation into darkness.
McDonald gets around this, partly by getting an outstanding performance from the excellent Lia Williams, that is restrained yet powerful. Amid all the chaos around her, Lia Williams remains in control and is incredibly sensitive in how she reveals any vulnerability in the character. In stark contrast Owen is a force of nature on stage, rarely still, he stalks the stage spitting out his often vindictive lines, full of nervous ticks and shakes. These two carry most of the play with other characters only interacting occasionally to help move the story along and McDonald is right to slow down the pace of their scenes so that we can revel in the quality of the acting.
The rest of the cast provide more than adequate support, Glover seems to enjoy his rare moments of theatricality, Gunn is excellent as the vampish hotel owner, and Finty Williams does very well as the butt of most of Shannon’s jokes. Everyone else is fine in what little stage time they are given.
An important character in the story is the hotel itself and Rae Smith’s design is flawless. The design cleverly creates sufficient space for the action to take place with a myriad of exists for characters to pass through and the whole space conjures the oppressive heat, despite the theatre’s air conditioning. The arrival of a tropical storm is achieved in stunning fashion in combination with Neil Austin’s lighting and Max Pappenheim’s sound design.
Whilst the sexual mores of the play certainly feel like they are from another age, there is still a lot of pleasure to be taken from William’s bitter humour and it is presented in such a clever and effective style that the play becomes a worthwhile experience. If nothing else, the two towering but contrasting performances at the heart of the production are certainly worth sitting through the three hour running time.
Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
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