MAGGIE: You know what I feel like? I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof.
BRICK: Then jump off the roof, Maggie. Jump off it. Cats jump off roofs and land uninjured. Do it. Jump.
It’s one of the core plays in the American dramatic canon, and yet there’s something distinctly unsettling about Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Simon Stone at Belvoir. Written in 1955, the play is about a family on a
plantation whose magnate, Big Daddy, is dying, drawing everyone into the
maelstrom. Described as “a powerful social critique of family breakdown, gender
roles and relationships,” it is about the end of an era and the next beginning,
a portrait of two generations, “one [that] doesn’t want to die, [while] the other
feels crowded out, confused, and desperate to inherit whatever it can get
before it’s too late.” But like its fellow plays in the canon – Arthur
Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and
Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – it is also a
deeply unsettling, troubling, problematic play, not least because of its
portrayal, characterisation and function of women. Mississippi
Underneath this bright and clever exterior is a darker more troubling problem, and it’s something that stops me from liking the play at all, no matter how impressive or diverting the stagecraft is in its presentation of the reality of the play. Ralph Myers, in the Belvoir season video, describes it as being “kind of funny… It’s a whole lot of people being mean to one another, which is always funny.” But I disagree; it’s not just about people being ‘mean’ to one another, it’s about the near-constant abuse, denigration and belittling of women, especially on the part of Big Daddy towards Big Mama, Mae, and occasionally Maggie, and everyone else besides. While some would argue that Williams presents a strong female role in Maggie ‘the Cat’, I would counter by saying that while the role is certainly strong, it comes at a price – Maggie’s strength comes from Brick’s weakness, his inability to be who he could be. In effect, their roles are reversed – Maggie has become a substitute for her husband while Brick has become that for his wife – but only in the absence of an active display of man-ness. In such a system, where “representations of masculinity and or femininity [are] interdependent… one gender is to be positive [whereby] its positivity depends upon rendering the other negative.” This vicious circle between the strong woman’s role and the usurping of a ‘male’ role sits at the heart of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and presents itself in many variations throughout the course of the near-three-hours’ running time. Brick’s ineffectualness and Maggie’s frustration – sexually, physically, mentally – are the essence of Williams’ play. Maggie runs rings around Brick from the beginning, her impressive almost-monologue first scene a mindnumbingly-tedious exploration of their relationship, their passions and (unsatisfied) desires. But, like the constantly revolving stage, it never gets anywhere much at all – everyone seems far too scared of saying the truth, what is really on their mind, for fear of upsetting a kind of fragile equilibrium or status quo that exists in the Pollitt house at the time.
If I’m to be honest, I don’t see what the fuss is about with this play, why it is a ‘classic,’ why it is such an integral part of the American dramatic canon. It’s all blustering and swagger, a hurt kind of pride, full of characters who blunder around aggressively but never actually release their anger or do anything about it; anger that is borne more out of unsatisfied sexual desires – both homoerotic and heterosexual – and that is kept propped up by metaphorical and physical crutches; full of broken ankles, broken relationships, broken lives. “It feels like we’re talking in circles,” Brick says to Big Daddy late in Act Two, “always the same old crap.” It’s almost as if Williams was commenting on his own play – the same ideas and phrases appear time and again, recycled and reused until they are old and tired; phrases like ‘a cat on a hot tin roof’ or calling people ‘catty,’ Brick waiting for the ‘click in his head that makes him feel peaceful’, Maggie trying to convince Brick to love her again… It’s all just bitter, frustrating, futile, tiresome and far too long.
The cast, performatively speaking, were all on form. Alan Dukes’ Gooper tried to wrest control of the plantation from Big Daddy, but his best efforts to be seen by his parents went unnoticed; Dukes’ realisation of this futileness only heightened the despair of Maggie and Brick in the final scene. Rebecca Massey’s Mae was sycophantic as ever, never able to truly ‘exist’ independent of her husband, Gooper. Ewen Leslie’s Brick was suitably hope-less and cagey, angry and frustrated, lost, disgusted; his attempts to escape the daily grind of living by drinking only made him seem more desperate, only served to give Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) more power. As capricious and mercurial a ‘cat’ as you’d ever see, McKenzie simmered and slunk about the stage with an empowered poise, her husky voice, when coupled with her slimness and agility, made her every inch the image of the titular cat. As Big Daddy, Marshall Napier was all proud bluster and rage; considering he’d only been in the role two weeks, he was impressive and played his scene with only the occasional prompt from the script.
The play’s ending – with Maggie and Brick in the bedroom together, undressing each other – only serves to cement the misogyny and the discounting of women which has been present throughout the play. “Maybe you’ll start to see me again,” Maggie says. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I did,” Brick replies, covering his face with a pillow as Maggie pulls his trousers off, burying her face in his body. As a final image, it’s every bit as despairing as it is cruel and unforgiving. And I’m still trying to work out what Stone was on about when he talks about it being “so incredibly sexy, like it turns you on from the first scene.” If it’s like all family dramas, “the hotbed of all the most extreme nastiness and yet pure love,” then I have no idea what it is that I call pure love, because it surely isn’t what I saw on stage in Williams’ play.
Theatre playlist: 7. Cat People (Putting Out The Fire), David Bowie