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One of the great and many joys of theatre are the different journeys it can take. On a recent weekend in Sydney I went back to the ’50s in Mississippi and then thousands of years in Australia while remaining in the present. A few weeks earlier I had been near Geneva to visit the Hadron Collider searching for the Higgs boson.
Although the last was in a setting of high science, it was really about family and how two very different sisters resolved their very different ideas of life. It was the latest play from Lucy Kirkwood, who writes about big-world matters and how they affect people on a much smaller level.
One of my favourite productions in recent years is Chimerica written by Kirkwood and directed by Kip Williams. The television version has just played on SBS and is worth a look on SBS On Demand.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Kip Williams
Roslyn Packer Theatre
Sydney Theatre Company
“Mendacity” is not a word one hears in everyday language. Actually, I suspect I have only heard it in this play. I remember it from when I saw the film 60 years ago. The film was a big movie as it starred Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman — she of the purple eyes and he of the blue. I did enjoy the movie and who couldn’t enjoy Burl Ives as Big Daddy.
I remember thinking it was all invented, the names (Big Daddy and Big Mama, Brick, Maggie and Gooper) were a fantasy along with the southern accents.
For me the story was a big family drama about people who were very rich and larger than life; a family that all seemed to hate each other. At the same time I recognised there was an undercurrent to what was happening. It was not explicit and at the time I had no idea it was homosexuality. Little did I know where my life was leading me and I knew nothing of Mr Williams, his homosexuality and the drugs and alcohol that were his other demons.
Over the years much has been said about the sexuality of Tennessee Williams and how it informed his work. As we became more aware of this, we were able to see how his plays carried characters that were gay. Looking retrospectively at The Glass Menagerie and Suddenly Last Summer, I find it hard to imagine how I missed it.
I am not sure whether it was there in A Streetcar Named Desire but I do remember my early stirrings reacting to seeing Marlon Brando in a t-shirt. Naturally when we see these plays (or films) now, we see them through the lens with which they were written.
This production opens with Maggie (Zahra Newman) singing Cry Me a River as a sultry performer, which leads to her humming the song as she starts putting on her many dresses as she prepares for dinner at the Pollitt family estate. Her husband Brick (Harry Greenwood) displays his disinterest as it becomes obvious that his main concern is to get another drink so he can have enough alcohol to reach that moment when his mind goes “click” and he can then survive whatever happens.
In this long opening scene, which is really a two hander with Brick and Maggie, we learn about Maggie’s background, how Brick was a top athlete and was suffering following the suicide of his best friend Skipper. The relationship of Maggie and Brick is fragile with their sex life being largely unfulfilled, which could well be because of Brick’s alcohol consumption. Or was there something more in Brick’s relationship with Skipper that it is implied as gay?
Then there is the family with Big Daddy (Hugo Weaving) the patriarch celebrating his birthday with the gathered masses; his other son Gooper (Josh McConville) and his wife Mae (Nikki Shiels) and their children Dixie, Buster, Polly and Sonny, who Maggie calls “their no-neck monsters”.
Then there is Big Mama (Pamela Rabe) who it becomes clear has a battle in satisfying Big Daddy who wants everything his own way. One of the most dreadful scenes is of Mama and Daddy fighting. She is one of those people who believes you put up with things because you are married and you can somehow keep it together.
Underlying everything is the fact the younger family know that Big Daddy has terminal cancer but he and Big Mama think he has a “spastic colon”. And so the story goes on to be a battle for inheritance between Brick and Gooper.
In reality, it is between the ambitious Maggie, Gooper and Mae. Brick is only interested in waiting for the “click” in his head. Added to the gathering is the Reverend Tooker (Peter Carroll) and Doctor Bough (Anthony Brandon Wong) and the play becomes a story of family spying on each other, lies and deceits as the battle for the inheritance is played out.
This is a very long melodrama that plays out over three hours, of which there was not one minute when I was not totally engrossed. This is despite there being quite a few things about the production I didn’t like.
The set was wrong. Setting it in the present was a bad contradiction as the play is definitely a period piece despite its themes still being current. The lighting was OK despite a terrible scene where there were fireworks that took over the whole stage.
The children playing the “no-neck monsters” were really terrible actors. I wanted to scream at them, not because they were monsters but because they were allowed to overact as if they were in an American stage mum festival.
I expect better from the Sydney Theatre Company. The acting was generally great but there is no excuse for the audience not being able to hear the words during the important scene between Big Daddy and Brick. I was not sure about Pamela Rabe’s Big Mama.
Usually Ms Rabe can do no wrong but I found some moments in this when I was unconvinced.
Zahra Newman shows just what she is capable of, having found her brilliance in The Book of Mormon and overseeing all was the extraordinary Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy.
Despite my concerns, director Kip Williams keeps a steady hand on the script allowing it to play out as intended by the author more than 60 years ago, unlike the dreadful Belvoir production in 2013.
Written by Andrea James
Directed by Anthea Williams
From the program: “This play had its genesis at Belvoir in 2012 and, in many ways, has come full circle. Winyaboga Yurringa, in my Yorta Yorta language, translates as ‘women of the sun’ and is inspired by Hyllus Maris and Sonia Borg’s fiercely political and poetically groundbreaking story that burst onto the small screen on SBS and later on the ABC television in 1981.”
Belvoir has a proud tradition of presenting Indigenous theatre and currently is backed by The Balnaves Foundation. I don’t need to explain why these plays and stories are so important to us. Every time I see one of the plays, I learn so much more about our country and its original people and this was no different. I saw it the day after Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and was even more affected by it.
It is a very simple story about the gathering six contemporary Aboriginal women led by Neecy (Roxanne McDonald).
They are meeting and camping on their land but Neecy has a box that she says she will unveil later. Rules are explained as the women gather... no drinking.
The story, told on one of the most impressive sets (by Isabel Hudson) starts with some rituals from Neecy and gradually the women gather. There are sisters Margie (Dalara Williams) and Wanda (Angeline Penrith), who spend most of their time bickering about everything.
Carol (Tasma Walton) arrives and states how much she hates camping. Carol has a PhD and works in a museum that has some Indigenous contents. The other person in the group is Chantalle (Dubs Yunupingu), who is young and only concerned about whether they will get wi-fi and so be able to catch up with her boyfriend. They all bicker and argue and laugh about food and where they will sleep and basically wonder why the hell they are all here and after a while they are joined by pale skinned Jaddah (Tuuli Narkle). Her arrival leads to the exposure of some internalised racism and meanwhile Chantelle disappears looking for her boyfriend. Over the 90-plus minutes of this engrossing and enjoyable piece of theatre, we learn of the issues facing the lives of Aboriginal women in today’s society. Eventually all is brought together when Neecy and Carol bring out the contents of the box. The items are representative of their culture and the final moments bring them all together but particularly the older Neecy and the young Chantelle.
Thank you Belvoir for your commitment to Indigenous stories, they are so important to us and will be even more important as we lurch towards Reconciliation and Treaty.
Frank Barnes is retired and looking forward to next seeing Sweeney Todd
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