I am the first to confess I indulge a healthy cultural appetite. This week I’m seeing four plays, one musical and attending a Literature seminar. That’s above average but not greatly unusual.
I can’t possibly comment on all I see, but sometimes I simply must: a recent visit to The Old Vic a case in point.
Academics and practitioners argue ad infinitum about what the most important ingredients are in a satisfying theatrical experience. Yet you don’t have to be well informed to know it when you see it. Layers of meaning help the director, actors and designers bring a work to life, and for audiences it is the imaginative meshing of factors such as text, sub-text, interpretation and talent which create the overall impression. When it comes to Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams currently playing at The Old Vic, the collective impact of elements is so strong I would advise anyone with an interest in
theatre to pay whatever you have to pay, do whatever you have to do, to clear
your diary and get a ticket. London
“Wow, wow, wow” was all I could put on Twitter as the curtain came down on this powerful and moving production, but days later it is still with me provoking all sorts of feeling and reflection. Can you ask for more from a night out?
Let me declare my hand. For various reasons I had high expectations:
- I like the play and Williams’ style of heightened reality;
- I saw Lauren Bacall playing “the Princess Kosmonopolis” when I was too young to understand what ‘aging’ meant but knew I’d seen something special;
- I am a fan of Kim Cattrall’s;
- And even before Marianne Elliott won Olivier Awards for A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time I had been impressed by her strong direction of Port, revived in the spring for The National.
Balancing this great play, this great production, are significant driving forces: age and youth; success and failure; desire and despair; hope and hopelessness; conformity and individuality; trust and betrayal; courage and fear; power and powerlessness; wealth and poverty; love and hate. It’s big stuff. Much hangs on a tightrope. The director, cast and crew need to rise to the challenge Williams throws up. And rise they do – bringing empathy and insight to the creative process to create an authentic interpretation.
Trusting a text layered with social and political meaning, the team have mined this dramatic piece for every ounce of humanity. It screams of 1950s American culture - of
of the deep South, of the worst of capitalism – but by being fiercely
respectful of these themes it finds a modern and universal resonance. Carefully controlled by Marianne Elliott the
team dig deep for nuance without losing key threads in an increasingly complex
The play begins with a heightened scenario: a worse-for-wear couple wake up in a hotel room with a) assorted threats re eviction or worse if they don’t willingly leave town, and b) the woman completely at a loss to remember how she got there or with whom she is travelling/sleeping. The audience immediately understand this story might exaggerate to make its point but the needs of the subjects are sufficiently real (and interesting) to make them relevant and accessible. To those who complain Williams is inclined to melodrama, I’d ask, compared to what? Even Greek Tragedies have humour and a longing for resolution. Williams’ canvass is Van Gogh, bright and broad brushstrokes against an early Impressionist’s pastels, and for that it’s all the more memorable.
Scene upon scene, situations at first thought a little outlandish become more believable, more gripping. Step by step characters become so vivid you love them as much for their flaws as their tender desires, or you hate them for their cruelty and narrow-mindedness. You are quickly hooked. Their risks are felt deeply. Their passions understood. And as principal characters like Alexandra Del Lago (played by Kim Cattrall) and Chance Wayne (played by Seth Numrich) approach a precipice of destruction, you are painfully aware of the judgements and inequalities which have contributed to their likely fall.
That’s not to say Williams lays all blame at society’s feet, his characters are too well drawn for that; their strengths and weaknesses, good and bad choices (of which there’s a lot). But it is through rich and colourful characterisation, and a plot packed with threat and conflict, that Williams criticises the exclusionary, survival-of-the-fittest nature of American Capitalism - what
Annette Saddik in
the programme notes describes as “the hypocrisy inherent in the promise of
individual freedom and the celebration of difference, as the American culture
of ‘success’ simultaneously insist(s) on allegiance and conformity”.
The tugging heart of Sweet Bird of Youth, for me, is an exploration of the loss and marginalisation associated with ageing, and the real, or perceived, loss of our ‘prime’. The political message is that the price paid by Chance in his struggle to meet the expectations of others, to make the grade, to chase the dream and make sufficient money to ‘deserve’ the woman he loves, is that this is too high a price to demand of many; in the worst case, a bargain made with the devil. And the spiritual question we are left with is the question haunting Chance: doesn’t it all have to mean something? If not, what is the point of his life, his individuality, his striving after success, his love for Heavenly? And if meaning is crucial, how can he leave town, run away from his mistakes and his sins, no matter how brutal his fate if he remain?
Williams, I think, hints at a feminist sympathy by allowing “the Princess Kosmonopolis”, aka the movie-star Alexandra Del Lago, to climb back from the ignominy and invisibility of age (drugs and alcohol) to enjoy her Hollywood return. It isn’t what we expect. Instead the weighty finale is the threat of castration and death hanging over the beautiful gigolo played superbly by the talented (and beautiful) Seth Numrich – whose character, Chance, has squandered his youth chasing his tail to turn himself into something he shouldn’t feel so pressured to be. In this we see Williams’ sympathy for men, as well as a comment on
that members of society conform to expectations of politics, success, sexuality and conservatism or else be damned as an outsider, as an
ever-perceived threat to the ‘natural’ order of things. America
Williams gives Chance a venereal disease to drive home his point about the threat of decay, to heighten the tragedy as it applies to his child-hood sweetheart, Heavenly (sensitively played by Louise Dylan)… but the real issue is that her father, Boss Finley (gruesomely well presented by Own Roe), is outraged this non-compliant, non-educated, non-wealthy cheek of a boy should dare to have made love to her at all. In this, and Finley’s bigoted justification of violence toward a black youth for pairing with a white girl, Williams gives us a revenge tragedy: Chance Wayne, from the beginning, out of luck and destined for destruction.
I felt moved and challenged by this poignant and gut-wrenchingly honest and energetic production. I felt, too, enormously entertained and invigorated. Some one-liners are so perfectly pitched I wouldn’t dare spoil their priceless delivery by quoting, but these are icing on the cake in a work founded firmly in character and narrative peeling. I laughed and I cried. I admired Kim Cattrall for the exceptionally good actress that she is - as brave, sharp and gutsy as she is vulnerable, available and well-considered - and for bringing in just the right amount of Norma Desmond. To a cast and crew of talent and faultless taste, I felt lucky to be in the audience to experience, and be changed by, the slice of life they conjure.
Strangely, I also felt comforted: comforted by Williams’ keen observation that ‘prime’ is a relative concept… that any of us can be challenged by the business of aging… whether 22, 32, 52 or 72… just as any of us can be challenged by an economic system which shows little sympathy for those on the bottom end of the curve… for with aging, and money, transitions and stages are inevitable… what is more important than ‘a number’ or a ‘bank balance’ is the quality in our time… is the meaning and satisfaction in our relationships… is the respect we give to our individual natures and style.
For a gay, liberal, bohemian man in a post-war-McCarthy-America to articulate such things honestly, shows courage and integrity indeed.
I’m sure Tennessee Williams would be well pleased with The Old Vic.