After its world premiere in 1967 at the very same theatre, Tennessee William’s The Two Character Play returns to Hampstead Theatre in a spellbinding production directed by Sam Yates. When the play was originally written, its writing style was panned by critics as being “too experimental” and categorized as a marked departure from William’s earlier texts that now serve as his dramatic legacy. However, it’s this very departure from the tradition that allows the Hampstead production to shine, combining a multitude of modern-day visual storytelling techniques and a stellar performance by its cast to create a magical and moving experience. As Yates adds, the intent is to create “a theatrical event that will showcase everything that’s vital about the live experience” and it succeeds in doing precisely that.
The Two Character Play concerns the lives of brother and sister duo Felice and Clare who are also fellow touring actors in a local repertory. After being deserted by other company members for allegedly “being insane”, they find themselves confined in a crumbling, empty theatre in the middle of nowhere. With little much to do, they proceed to do what they know best – put on a show for an audience and decide to enact the text “The Two-Character Play” which eerily resembles their own lives. Using the play within a play set-up, the show then drifts in and out of reality as the lines between the two worlds start to blur and the actors start to dip in and out of the “performance”, improvising parts of the script and their memories that have not yet been realized. Exploring themes of psychological trauma, grief and loneliness, the story offers a powerful provocation of being trapped in one’s own memories, how replaying them repeatedly in one’s head can almost lead us to believe events that never happened and truths that never were. The lack of a coherent ending is perhaps the strongest highlight of William’s text, leaving the audience with a multitude of possibilities of what actually happened with Felice and Clare in the end.
Kate O’Flynn, who plays Clare, delivers a searingly honest and heartwarming performance. Her efforts to balance Clare’s emotional vulnerability and yearning to assert herself in front of her brother come across strongly – especially in scenes where she challenges her brother’s intentions. Zubin Varla’s Felice is not only calm and composed, but also carries a deep rage within themselves which is at the brink of explosion. His resigned acceptance of the duo’s fate – doomed to an endless playback of memories and confrontations – as well as the occasional rebuffs of Clare’s antics, offer us a deeper insight into the siblings’ relationship. Yates’ direction allows both performers to leverage the text’s unreliable narrative structure to the maximum, using effective movement and vocal mannerisms to indicate shifts in time and space. The video and projection design by Akhila Krishnan allows us to appreciate the subtleties of these shifts, through the hauntingly powerful use of a real-time camera feed of moments on stage that wouldn’t have otherwise caught our attention. Rosanna Vize’s design brings vibrancy and depth to the text’s otherwise minimal reliance on stage properties, giving the performers a way to “do things as they do them” and reinforces its self-referential tone. Lee Curran’s light design and Dal Balfour’s sound design add a lot of value in delighting and shocking the audience through powerful and carefully curated “moments” that hang in the air, a powerful reminder of the “live” experience. The show’s unconventional scenographic choices as well as a sense of fluidity to everything that happens on the stage allows us to go beyond an otherwise confusing plot that offers little resolution and think critically about the larger question its two characters are asking us.
To summarize, Hampstead’s revival of Tennessee William’s Two Character Play is visually stunning and deeply moving, a fitting ode to William’s own admission that it was “my most beautiful play since A Streetcar Named Desire, the very heart of my life”.
You can watch The Two Character Play at the Hampstead Theatre NW3 3EU until 28th August. Learn more and book tickets at https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2021/the-two-character-play
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 26th July 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★