Director Roy Alexander Weise brings his bold and original vision of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play to the demanding environment of the spaceship stage of the Royal Exchange, resulting in a production that sheds new light on the superb writing, packing race, misogyny and sexuality into the steamy Mississippi brew.
Considering it is widely regarded as Williams’ defining work, ‘Cat’ has had surprisingly few appearances over the last twenty years, with some of his other writings gaining more exposure and subsequent critical praise. The fact he penned the play in the repressive Conservative atmosphere of 1950’s America meant exploring the latent homosexuality of the central character Brick (Bayo Gbadamosi) – and the effect it has on his relationship with his spirited wife Maggie (Ntombizodwa Ndlovu) and dominant father Big Daddy (Patrick Robinson) – was necessarily circumspect and has led to criticism when viewed from a more liberal modern perspective. Weise places this conflict at the heart of the production and tackles in head on, the caustic effect of Brick’s self-deception leads to his character’s hopeless alcoholism and a web of lies and half truths that consume the whole family.
The original stage notes for the set give us ‘a bed-sitting room of a plantation home’, Designer Milla Clarke offers a modernist interpretation of this instruction, with a bare, circular, cream coloured space, surrounded by a raised banquette upon which the props are scattered. Long diaphanous gold curtains act as screens to this open plan setting with Lizzie Powell’s lighting design floods the theatre with warm yellow light, gradually darkening as the storm approaches. Dominating all is an enormous bed; a constant onstage reminder of the importance that sex, reproduction and the dynastic imperative of children play in this story.
Indeed, the set design pushes most of the supporting action to the periphery, the party to celebrate the 65th birthday of Big Daddy becomes an off-stage backdrop, supporting scenes and characters are truncated and pushed aside. What this leaves us with is a series of two-handed set pieces defining the three hours of the show, the stripping away of extraneous distractions to explore the motives and characters of the leading characters. So, we initially meet Maggie and Brick in the bedroom, Ndlovu dominating the opening half an hour with an extraordinarily confident series of monologues as Maggie, punctuated by rare interjections from Gbadamosi as the taciturn Brick. She brings the humour and light of the character to the fore, flitting around the stage, chattering whilst half seducing her husband, changing clothes and never drawing breath. Ndlovu, a graduate of the excellent local Manchester School of Theatre, adds another superb performance to that from ‘The Mountaintop’ on this stage in 2021, her nascent partnership with Weise working to the benefit of both and delighting the audience.
The delayed entrance of Big Daddy allows the central issue of the plot to be directly addressed, the alpha male strutting of Robinson illustrating a character who has always dominated his family and his supposed recovery from a cancer scare gives his worst instincts free reign to be expressed. Robinson superbly displays not only the hectoring bully that we know Big Daddy to be, but also demonstrates a cruel misogyny in the character that is in the writing and is laid bare by his performance. His dismissive attitude to his devoted wife Big Mama (Jacqui Dubois) and daughter in law Mae (Danielle Henry) make it clear he regards women as inferior, merely servants to his will, even Maggie is seen only as a potential sexual trophy. Brick responds when confronted by his fathers direct accusation of ‘sissiness’, Gbadamosi juxtaposes his immense physicality onstage with a plaintive supplicant performance, his cry to ‘give me my crutch’ resoundingly echoes, as he grabs for support for his injured ankle whilst clutching the metaphorical crutch that the bourbon bottle provides.
Although the evening stretched to almost three and a half hours including interval, the pace only dropped in the final act. With a more traditional format being employed to bring the story to conclusion, the powerful set piece monologues were replaced by desultory conversation and struggled to convince. The closing scene, ‘Tonight we’re going to make the lie true’, missed the power of what had gone before and lacked the conclusion the production deserved.
However, Weise succeeds in exploring other elements not present in the writing by utilising a black cast in all the leading roles, subverting some of the original colonial themes. Hearing the original offensive racial slurs spoken by a black actor adds meaning and power back into the text, the setting of a Mississippi cotton plantation as the source of the family wealth is all the more striking with this casting. In a production that is heavy with metaphor, the staging in this former cotton exchange, where the profits from the misery and degradation of slavery were distributed, is strongly symbolic.
Overall, a production that was rich and complex and which managed to convey the writing with clarity and pace, adding new elements with innovative creative decisions and superb leading performances.
Performances continue until 29th April, visit https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/ for more information and tickets.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 29th March 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★