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Friday 8 March 2013

BELVOIR’S ‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF’ dissected by me

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.



  1. Wow. Loved reading your comments. I look forward with heightened relish to seeing the production in due course. Thank you so much for being opinionated and distinctive. I really love your appreciative protestations. If theatre does not accommodate complexity it is doomed to plastic. More please. John B

  2. Jane, I went to the theatre all hyped for an exciting evening, and came away just so so. It may have been something I ate but the constant screaming and loping around the stage set my teeth on edge. I agree the acting was convincing but the set design (particularly the streamers) distracted me and I found myself being worried about how they were going to replace those dam streamers for each new run. I have never seen or read 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' so maybe a second sitting will bring it all together for me.

    1. I hear it takes 3 hours to reset the stage each night. Nightmare! The stage crew earn their money in this show. My students were driven a bit insane by the rotating stage but with Stone Age I'm used to it by now & hardly notice anymore. I'm just glad we didn't get the stark white walls.

  3. Hi Jane,

    I was given a link to your review by a colleague of mine. Thank Christ he gave it to me! I absolutely agree with your criticism of Stone's theatrical perception and construction of women. You will definitely be interested in the little video they have for Cat on the Belvoir website:

    Myself and a fellow theatre lover run our own blog, and have also done a review of Cat. I hope you will read it with interest. Let us know what you think. I'll be subscribing to your blog as

  4. About the criticism of the portrayal of the women in the play how much of this is also a criticism of Tennessee Williams himself, rather than of the director Simon Stone ? Is it rather Tennessee Williams who had the problem with women, for writing those characters ?

    1. Williams certainly gave him an opportunity to heighten his interpretation & I'm not saying it came out of left field. But I am concerned that so much of Stone's work portrays women in this way. I think I'm more aware of it because of the accumulated experiences of watching his work over the last few years.

  5. Okay, the Hysterical Woman theory applied to every other play I've seen Simon Stone direct:

    - Wild Duck - Not a lot of hysteria until, well, stuff gets nasty in the second half, by which point men and women are both getting hysterical in about equal measure.

    - Neighbourhood Watch - Not spectacularly hysterical at any time.

    - Thysestes - No actual women. Female characters played by men were hysterical, but after severe greecian tragedy provocation. So were all of the men when similarly provoked

    - Strange Interlude - Weirdly, very very little hysteria. Actually, the problem with the production was more that there was a big blank in the middle where Nina should have been - she seemed more defined by the men around her than by any of her own agency. Nina was mindbogglingly calm most of the time.

    - Death of a Salesman - again, not a lot of hysteria most of the time, unless you're talking about when Linda's confronted with Willy's suicide attempts, in which case ... well, that seems more than justified.

    - Cat on a Hot Tin roof - not seen yet, will see next week. But Tennesse Williams is notorious for women going bonkers - the last Williams Belvoir did, "Suddenly Last Summer", throws in everything but the kitchen sink to make them go nuts.

    Point not proven.

    1. That Guy,

      Our reading of the performance text semiotics might be different but perhaps I could offer another perspective on your examples:

      Wild Duck- women must be exposed & punished & men can only trust other men to tell them the truth. Woman loses everything but man is the real victim.

      Neighbourhood Watch- fickle female behaviours (occurring at all ages) because women ultimately are objects of comedy even in their tragedy & loneliness.

      Thyestes- so profoundly violent against women we can't have women play those roles on stage

      Strange Interlude- women have no right to be happy. They must fulfil a duty to man until emotionally they are incapable of love.

      Death of a Salesman- wife constantly hysterical & no wonder Willy's infidelity is not shocking to us. Linda is another version of Big Mama. Requiem completely cut- why have Linda get the last word?

      Baal- women completely disposable. Man can only find himself in the violence he perpetrates against women.

      It's a matter of perspective & we read it differently.

    2. I've thought about this and I've thought about this repeatedly.

      And I think part of the problem is Belvoir's twin strategies of doing a lot of classics and doing it in contemporay situations does leave fairly exposed the limitations and assumptions of a lot of the source texts (the violence in Private Lives, for instance, was a lot more obvious than it would have been had the distancings of smart costumes, charmingly clipped british accents and 1930's art deco design been applied).

      At the same time, yes, Stone has a bit of a woman problem (although I'll dispute "Neighbourhood Watch" fairly emphatically - I think you're stretching to make a point there). Certainly in "Cat", McKenzie doesn't really come across with the impact she should, and Curran's directed very inconsistently (either at or beyond the edge of parody during the first half, then fiercly loyal moral centre in the second) - and the same was true of "Strange Interlude". Perhaps it's only with a strong female pairing at the centre that women's stories can actually come through.

      Having said that, it's pretty easy to make a director look misogynist. If I picked the last three Neil Armfield shows I saw, for instance:

      "Diary of a Madman" - women are either distant unobtainable objects of desire, subservient idiots or loons.

      "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" - nothing a man can do will make a woman happy.

      "The Secret River" - all women are good for is as domestic nags or to tell the stories of men.

      I think in all three cases I'm making slightly grotesque simplifications ... but the case is there if you want to make it.

  6. I saw the play tonight with two friends. We left at interval. We were all taken by surprise by the level of misogyny. It didn't occur to us that the director had a hand in that and we just assumed it was the play. The audience around us exploded into (mostly male) laughter when Big Daddy abused Big Mama (more than once) for being fat ugly old and smelly. It seemed a hateful production

    1. Hi Faux- I certainly think Williams was no fan of women but Stone has taken the ball and blown it as large as it could be. That's fine but I'd like to see Stone find a way to interpret his work in other ways too. I've seen him do this all too often.

  7. Thanks for your comments on this show, although I enjoyed the production, i tend to agree. All I can say is, where are the hot new female directors??? Sydney theatre needs some rebalancing.