The Night of the Iguana, Noël Coward Theatre (preview)

A long journey into the night as a big name cast fails to imbue relevance to this three-hour-plus production 

the-night-of-the-iguana

“Oh, God, can’t we stop now? Finally?”

The last line in The Night of Iguana resonated for all the wrong reasons: after over three hours in a broiling hot theatre surrounded by fidgety tourists, I have rarely empathised so much with a character.

Still in previews (which didn’t stop the theatre charging us £30 for seats way in the gods), Tennessee Williams’ 1961 play, features many of his tropes – the weather is an extra character, the tension boiling over as the thunder rolls, there are troubled male character battling demons, enigmatic women who refuse to be tamed and heavy-handed metaphors.

After seeing Noël Coward’s sparkling Present Laughter at The Old Vic last week, The Night of Iguana (currently showing at the Noël Coward theatreseemed like a lumbering beast – as slow and ungainly as the titular lizard, the theatrical heat (or perhaps the very real one in the auditorium) seeming to sap the production of any fire.

The play follows a classic dramatic arch. Set in the 1940s, you get a bunch of mismatched characters in one place – in this case, a cheap hotel near Acapulco, Mexico. Clive Owen plays Shannon, a priest with a penchant for young girls – something which we seem to be asked not to feel too strongly about – who has recently been released from an institution where he was recovering from a “nervous breakdown”.

After being released from his physical internment (but very much still battling to break out of his mental prison), Shannon takes up a position as a tour guide for a second-rate travel firm and brings his current group to this dilapidated establishment run by his friend Maxine (Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn), a recent widow struggling to keep a roof over her and her guests’ heads.

When we meet Shannon he has just been accused of the statuary rape of a sixteen-year-old member of his tour party. But, hey, he carries women’s luggage so he’s not all bad. The women of the group have turned against him because of the small matter of the rape accusation – and are portrayed as nagging, humourless women for being so uptight about this silly little trifle.

In the midst of this, comes watercolour hustler Hannah Jelkes and her elderly grandfather Nonno who, despite having no money to pay their bill, take up residence at the hotel (although Hannah is given a room with a leaking roof by Maxine as a little two-finger gesture).

The central scene is a heavy tête-à-tête between Shannon and Hannah where they excavate their pasts in a merry dialogue dance that could be cheerfully cut to half its length so we could all get home before midnight.

Occasionally the heavy atmosphere is punctured by funny, well-delivered lines, usually from Lia Williams as Hannah. And then there are the Nazis in their swimsuits who every now and again will gallop on stage, laughing at London burning in the Blitz, demanding champagne, before skipping off again to a collective WTF.

Length isn’t a barometer of a good or bad play, of course; I sat completely entranced through the two well-over-three-hour halves of The Inheritance and have stood happily watching Shakespeare’s lengthy histories and tragedies at the Globe.

But this production felt flabby and, well, a bit pointless. What was it about this play that needed to be heard now? Shannon is the kind of man the world is trying to challenge, even eradicate – a sexual predator, an emotionally stunted man who thinks everything and everyone is his for the taking, the women around him either ridiculed or desperate to protect him in case he turns on them.

This production didn’t say anything new about men like Shannon or challenge his worldview. Owen didn’t imbue him with any real depth or give us a hint of something that would provide a glimpse of what was behind his behaviour, so it was difficult to feel anything other than contempt for him – an idiotic child-man who assumed he could do what he likes.

Plaudits to the brilliant set – the thunder and lightning and pouring rain so real I felt like diving under the seats – but, while Williams’ plays are always languid, soaked in sweat and unspoken fears, this metaphorical humidity shouldn’t dampen the drama.

The Night of the Iguana | Noel Coward Theatre | Until September 28 2019

Theatre Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire. Pic: Johan Persson

Blanche DuBois is a dramatic character vivid enough to have walked off the pages of Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire and take on a life of her own. She’s become a by-world for the archetypical southern belle who doesn’t chime as clearly as she once did.

The role requires filling some big feather-adorned high-heel slippers, from Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway production to Vivien Leigh in the Olivier directed UK debut and, of course, the film. Since July, Gillian Anderson has more than filled these shoes, winning rapturous praise from the critics and audience for her performance in Benedict Andrew’s Young Vic reprisal.

Finally able to get hold of one of the golden tickets after the run extended into mid-September my expectations were high, so the first 15-minutes were a little deflating as the production spluttered to life ; some of the southern drawls seemed wonky, their words muffled in the revolving stage, the actors, now in their final week seemed a little distance.

But after this bumpy start, the production sparked into life and heated up like a New Orleans afternoon in July, revealing Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in all its glory. She really is phenomenal as Blanche, a woman so easy to play as a caricature. For Streetcar to be successful, you have to, if not like her, then sympathise and empathise with this self-obsessed woman, and Anderson instils her with an unaffected fragility, and even uncovers a certain amount of common sense behind her ramblings.

A Streetcar Named Desire is the tale of Blanche DuBois whose life has unravelled to a point where her only sanctuary is with her sister Stella Kowalski,  and her husband Stanley in their two-room apartment in New Orleans. Blanche’s presence in the tiny flat with a volatile couple who love and hate with a passion, lights the fuse paper of her ultimate end.

What could be a very static play, set only in two rooms, pulsates with life in this production. Anderson’s Blanche is never still, twitchy and restless, floating her hands like a geisha performing a dance.  Blanche’s Japanese-influenced dressing gown is perhaps another link that, Blanche’s heightened femininity, like a geisha’s, is an act and her livelihood. Blanches oxygen is the male gaze, a gaze so intense she is ultimately destroyed by it. It’s fitting that at one point she is dressed as a Jim Beam soaked Barbie doll.

Benedict Andrews moves the story from 1947 to the modern day, stripping the play of any southern whimsy. The set is Ikea minimal, the costumes, bar the odd eighties style prom dress, sleek designer dresses and high heels (highlighting the influence the play had on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine; when Gillian Anderson first walked on, I thought Cate Blanchett was understudying for the evening).

But the production is still southern in its soul. Anderson, when she hits her stride is mesmerising, the poetry of Williams southern dialogue lilting and lyrical in her delivery. Even in a stark white cube in a theatre in Waterloo you can imagine the sweat trickling down your back, the stickiness of your legs on a plastic chair.

Andrews’ dispenses with the jazz for an electrifying rock and dance soundtrack, including PJ Harvey’s scuzzy ‘To Bring My Love’ and Cat Powers’ haunting cover of ‘Troubled Waters’ (“You must be one of the devil’s daughters they look at me with scorn”) and it hugely affecting and powerful.

While Anderson is the standout star, she’s not alone in her galaxy. Ben Foster as the brutally masculine Stanley Kolwolski gives a performance as powerful as his biceps. Vanessa Kirby’s imbues Stella with a steely confidence, and Corey Johnson is quietly captivating as the hapless, sweaty Mitch, Blanche’s would-be saviour.

by Suzanne Elliott