edited by Rachael Hains-Wesson
Black Swan’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is off to an impressive start. The sound of a guitar twanging can be heard as its strings slide and the theatre space is gradually filled with the accompaniment of a bluesy bass line. The music is reminiscent of long hazy days, muggy nights and cicadas chirping. At first glance there appears only to be a simple bedroom on stage but this is soon artfully transformed into a grandiose Southern plantation by the addition of colonial columns that span from the floor to the ceiling. There are swampy vines creeping their way from the banks of the Mississippi into the room itself and once again Black Swan has chosen a wonderful designer in Bruce McKinven.
Director, Kate Cherry orchestrates a stage full of characters caught up in ceaseless histrionics, turning missed communications into an art form. Her directional approach is a raucous balance of hyper-inflated moments of honesty and unapologetic familial accusations. There are occasional laughs, presumably at Maggie (Cheree Cassidy) and Big Daddy’s (John Stanton) shocking audacity, and the cast does an admirable job of portraying the ultimate tragedy of this Tennessee Williams classic. It is quite a feat to visually transport an audience from Perth, Australia to the bedroom of a Mississippi plantation house, and Black Swan has completed this inspirationally.
However, despite the positive aspects of this show, I still had some reservations. For one, Cassidy’s seductive drawl and exaggerated movements overwhelm Tom O’Sullivan’s portrayal of Maggie’s husband Brick whose noncommittal responses in between desperate swigs of whiskey are the only indication of his presence. Cassidy’s Maggie the Cat is so intense and enigmatic that in comparison to O’Sullivan’s performance he appeared stunted, literally as he hobbles around with a broken ankle and figuratively as even his verbal indifference pales to Cassidy’s facial expressions. This contrast of passion versus ambivalence was further enhanced by Big Daddy (John Stanton) and Big Mama’s (Carol Burns) performances. Stanton's Big Daddy emerges from the thronging idolatry lavished upon him by his wife and scheming son and daughter in-law. His acerbic jibes and irreverent quips create a larger than life personality that is both compelling and unsettling. This is especially true in the second Act when Big Daddy’s resentment and affection for Brick compel Brick to react in kind, and the first semblance of an honest conversation blossoms between the two. For once, the “mendacity” that pervades the characters’ interactions finally breaks down, if only for one scene. Maggie and Big Daddy’s constant and quick-paced pseudo monologues, however, manage to considerably confuse this issue. While Maggie warns Brick that “the laws of silence don’t work,” neither, unfortunately, does her continual prattling.
The strength of Black Swan’s interpretation of William’s play lies in Cherry’s stylistic approach to the Deep South as both the setting and as a metaphor for the characters themselves such as the muggy early evening air that stifles Brick and Maggie as much as their stilted communication discomforts the audience. Or, the storm that rages on towards the end of the third Act, mirroring the frenzy of betrayal and confusion at the news of Maggie’s pregnancy and Big Daddy’s cancer. Fortunately, lighting designer Ben Collins increases these moments of tension with skilfully placed flashes of lighting and dimmed spotlights.
Overall, a masterful production best suited for those who might understand and appreciate Williams’ veiled innuendos. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs until October 2nd at the Heath Ledger Theatre.