With a new filmed theatre production in release, Aaron Manhattan considers the continuing queer appeal of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 classic.
It’s got booze, buried secrets, hostility to children, maybe even a female-on-male marital rape… but is Tennessee Williams 1955 classic Cat On A Hot Tin Roof still relevant to LGBTIQ audiences today?
This is what I was wondering when I went to see the National Theatre Live’s latest London production… at the movies! It was quite wonderful to see a filmed version of this West End theatre production (directed by Benedict Andrews), but I must admit I had mixed feelings. Cat shocked audiences when it first came out with its taboo content. It had an aura of decadence and an ambiguous homoerotic plot line, which barely made it into the 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
Gay audiences at the time didn’t think the film went far enough. Even Tennessee Williams claimed it set the movement back 20 years. I hoped this new production, coming fresh on the heels of a renaissance of classic gay theatre on Broadway (such as Ryan Murphy’s The Boys In The Band) might remedy historical injustice.
The film opens with 27-year-old football stud Jack O’Connell (of Skins fame) standing naked onstage under a running shower with a shocking hangover. He’s been drinking himself into oblivion for some time, ridden with guilt over the death of his “friend” Skipper. He doesn’t say much in the beginning, and when he does he doesn’t sound American, more like Colin Farrell, although this has the effect of causing one to recall Farrell’s infamous sex tape!
The English National Theatre are innovating for fresh audiences and creating a modern, cross-platform, stage-to-media experience. This can be seen in the sleek fashion direction of the publicity images and, perhaps, explains the casting of Sienna Miller. Sienna plays Maggie, Brick’s frustrated wife whom he has rejected sexually. With her perfectly effortless hair, high cheekbones and resemblance to Kate Moss, Sienna and Jack look like a ’90s black-and-white Calvin Klein commercial. This is the West End meets Instagram Live meets PornHub.
The stage design and costuming are minimal. There’s a gold wall, a bed and a vanity table. With the responsibility of carrying most of the first act, Sienna Miller distracts us and quite possibly herself with a contrived southern accent, making Williams wonderful lines considerably less so. She also goes to town on the cat metaphor, sitting cross legged in sheer stockings, crawling with her back arched. I confess, I felt nothing. My date left.
Now, I know it’s dreadful for me, a gay man who worships Elizabeth Taylor to pass comment on Sienna Miller; to allege that her Rimmel “London Look” is somehow lower shelf chemist in comparison. I know this. I also know we all saw and forgot her attempt to capture the doomed, utterly magnetic Warhol superstar Edie Sedgewick in Factory Girl. Is she the Delta Goodrem of British miscasting? Less Lawrence Olivier, more low-rent Olivia Newton-John? Could I have done a better job? These questions arose. But back to the play.
When Big Mama arrives on stage we finally have a real character actress! Someone sincerely ridiculous, comical and heightened – as was Tennessee Williams’ vision of life itself. In the second half, Big Daddy also does not disappoint. The domineering southern patriarch telling the shrill, irritating women to shut up and go away provides an illicit amusement in the #metoo era.
Growing increasingly likeable throughout, he is brash but honest, weary of bullshit and “the smell of mendacity” in his house. In the scene where the question of Brick’s homo affair with Skipper dangles in the air, it is his lack of homophobia that is shocking. Tolerant, empathetic and fascinating, he parallels the father in Call Me By Your Name. Here we have the subversive critique of compulsory heterosexuality that the play intends.
With all actors onstage, the runaway train that is the play itself manages to take off and, carrying less dialogue, even Sienna Miller gains strength and charismatic power. Williams’ genius as a dramatist and observer of humanity shines through.
Are the gays the target audience? Probably not. A less straight production might have called on the gods of madness to deliver insight, as hard drinking, drug abusing Williams himself would have done. Personally, I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangeness. I preferred the heightened surreal melodrama of the Australia’s Sisters Grimm 2013 production Summertime In The Garden Of Eden. The Sisters Grimm borrowed the Williams-esque setting of a steamy summer evening on the plantation; their bearded, underground queens paid better tribute to Williams decadence and daring.
This one is a bit more Netflix. But, complaints aside, the unquenchable flames of the play itself are the complex characters, forced to play their socially defined roles, forced to live with illusions, and Williams refusal to judge them by conventional standards. He depicts the agony of sexual frustration, the masculine malaise of being unable to show love and the tragedy of separation truthfully and beautifully.
Williams didn’t write for gay audiences, he wrote for audiences. His work connects you to your own humanity; to something wild and bohemian that exists outside of society, and to your compassion. I like the idea that in the era of marriage equality, marriage is, here, revealed as a cage where loneliness survives, where the truth is muzzled and the drink beckons. His critique / exposure of normalcy is powerful and relevant today.