Ah...Simon Stone. For some of you, that’s all I need to say. His name is synonymous with a certain style and interpretation that marks his work as distinctive as an Australian accent.
But perhaps this is your first foray into the ‘Stone Age’. It is for you I write this review. You, who is trying to make sense of the play which you most likely and reasonably enjoyed and yet you are still trying to process how it made you feel and think. I hope this helps.
Simon Stone loves a hysterical woman. He takes certain plays that allow his female characters to be portrayed without depth, to play for comedy, to see them chiefly as manipulative, cunning nags so we can dismiss their intentions and sympathise with the men. He takes those plays (or re-writes them to resemble this theme) and then conjures every theatrical trick he knows to interpret the material this way. Stone manages to find an early draft of the play that provides a very different, non-Broadway ending and it seems to have been given an update in contemporary language and thwack, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ hits that sore spot once again.
Let me break it down for you. Act One. Revolving stage. Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) delivers her tirade to alcoholic husband Brick (Ewen Leslie). He drinks, she talks relentlessly. But while she talks and the stage turns and turns, with additions of clothes, shoes, make-up, jewellery each time the stage revolves- the message is clear. Don’t listen to what she’s saying. Watch her fussing, be distracted by her constant inability to commit to an outfit as she throws clothes and shoes on the floor and goes on and on, spinning, like a spider in a web. McKenzie’s vocals are so strained as she declaims her dialogue as directed that you stop listening anyway. Maggie’s endowed as shallow. Let’s all sympathise with husband Brick. I mean wouldn’t you be driven to drink if you were married to that? Wouldn’t you be ‘indifferent’ to her too? Wouldn’t you prefer the ‘company’ of men?
Enter other female characters like sister-in-law Mae (Rebecca Massey), nagging self-seeking opportunist with her badly behaved brood; Big Mama (Lynette Curran) painted as crass, loud, two-dimensional and melodramatic. All emotional transitions for the women are instant and it leads us to one conclusion. Women are fickle. Women have no depth of feeling because they can change without reason and therefore women cannot be trusted or believed, whatever they say to you. It’s all a tactic to get what they want.
Then we are given something different when Big Daddy (Marshall Napier) enters and he possesses the space with Brick. The revolving stage suddenly stops and the conversation, the real conversation is allowed to begin. No tricks. A pure naturalistic relationship is allowed to evolve. Suddenly we’re listening and watching and invested in these characters without distraction. We understand their backstory, their intentions and we hope for a glimmer of success and wish that they can become better men, even if we see how the truth destroys them.
There is no such hope for the women. Even when Big Mama says to Big Daddy, ‘In all these years you never believed that I loved you? And I did. I did so much. I did love you! I even loved your hate and your hardness’, we don’t believe her either. Stone does not want us to waste an ounce of empathy on the women in the play so in the last Act, as the children of Big Daddy reveal the truth of his condition to Big Mama, it’s played for comedy because she is seen as ridiculous.
The problem with this interpretation (which Stone is perfectly entitled to) is that the audience only allows itself sympathy for the men of the play, even if they are mean, emotionally void and closeted because they are given the time to let their emotions unfold. We see their stoicism in the face of this female hysteria. We see their fight for identity beyond the sacrifices and tolerance they have of the manipulative ball-busting women.
Mae is probably the one character you have the freedom to explore with this idea, especially with her horrible children (oh the awful women who strive to breed only do so for financial gain- isn’t that still a platform used in politics today?) Of course we allow Gooper (Alan Dukes) more dignity than his wife. At the end he is given the role of protector of Mae as he catches the bottle aimed for her head and he tries to wrestle control from his meanly-mouthed wife (poor hen-pecked husband, we think, to be trapped with such a bitch).He catches bottles/bullets for her and if he is invisible or emasculated, as Big Mama calls his brother Brick ‘my only son’, it is because Gooper has allowed Mae to take control of their relationship, just as he allowed Big Daddy to plot out his life journey.
As for the finale when Maggie has hidden the bottles from Brick and will only grant him access to the alcohol if he succumbs to her power, we see him lying limp, pillow over his face, retreating from Maggie’s complete physical and emotional blackmail as she takes advantage of her husband. If it played in reverse we might call it abuse or rape.
Stone makes sure we don’t miss the point- women are impossible to love. The sexual frustration of Maggie we can laugh at, the sexual confusion of Brick is played for drama and the results of sex between a man and woman (those awful children) we absolutely despise.
When women fail, it’s comic. When men fail, it’s tragic. It’s Stone Age in a nutshell.
It’s ironic that Stone practices the art of theatre clearly in line with 21st Century techniques but with a 19th Century system of beliefs. I really enjoy his staging and believe it or not, I enjoyed this play. The assault on the senses of the discordant epic requiems designed by Stefan Gregory contrasted to the piano refrains of children singing beautifully captured the ‘staging’ of innocence to the inner workings of a frustrated mind out of place with its environment and expectations.
The streamers as a set design concept (Robert Cousins) were another great touch used as a literal symbol of Big Daddy’s birthday but also used to create a number of entrances and exits and at the end we see how good times are a thing of the past. The detritus of the stage tells us all we need to know about the Pollitt family and their destiny.
I suppose you want me to mention the accents? I don’t really mind them. I think the rhythm of the language was sometimes inherent in the way it’s written. I did notice a Southern US lilt every now and again but it wasn’t one of the things that alienated me from this play or its references. I also thought the acting was terrific- although I feel like Stone makes it much more difficult for his women in the cast to sit with the material as they have to punch it for the instant comedy much more than the men.
I do think Stone knows how to stage a play. I like how he manipulates the stage to play with meaning and semiotics, if you like. What I don’t like is the constant repetition of his portrayal of women on stage. I think Simon Stone has an issue with women. There. I’ve said it.
Perhaps it’s apt I’m posting this review on International Women’s Day. Perhaps I’m just another hysterical woman ranting and raving about things because I have no emotional depth and I am a self-serving nag with an Australian accent. Whatever you believe, you’re going to have an opinion on ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and I look forward to hearing it.