Too much talk and little communication sets a steamy scene. Timothy Ramsden reports
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof By Tennessee Williams Nottingham Playhouse to September 24 Tel: 0115 941 9419 Coventry Belgrade September 28-October 15 Tel: 024 7655 3055
Edinburgh Royal Lyceum October 21-November 19 Tel: 0131 248 4848
You can't stand on and you won't jump off: like a cat on a hot tin roof, to use an expression of Cornelius, Tennessee Williams's father.
Director Richard Baron sees the son's use of this phrase as typical: "Gore Vidal says he never saw Tennessee Williams with a book. He used his life in his plays."
Tennessee's brother Dakin was a handsome lawyer and their father's favourite. In this 1955 play the lawyer becomes venal offspring Gooper. The handsome favourite of the play's Big Daddy is Brick, who never gives but often inspires love.
Baron has returned to Williams's original script, without the softening of act three which Broadway director Elia Kazan persuaded the playwright to make, and which Williams later regretted. His first version, Baron believes, is darker, bleaker and more truthful. In place of the reconciliation between the gay Brick and his wife Maggie, their future relationship is more ambiguous; Baron compares it to that of Look Back in Anger's Jimmy and Alison Porter. And there is no return of Big Daddy, last seen here raging "against the dying of the light" at the end of act two.
This new production incorporates Big Daddy's strong language from a 1975 version (Williams used the swearing in manuscript but not production). It makes the character more colourful. "He is someone who has spent three years believing he is dying from cancer. The play's set on his 65th birthday, the day he is told he is not dying. He has spent three years contemplating life, being silent. He suddenly feels he can talk again. His big speeches are torrential."
This is a play where communication is difficult, because characters talk but do not listen. Williams admires Big Daddy as a life-force, like his daughter-in-law Maggie. Brick treats her with coldness and contempt, using her as a scapegoat for his ills and the doubts about his sexuality which (as with the author) tear him apart.
Sex is highlighted from the start. The first thing Maggie does is take off her dress; Brick enters from the bath, bare-chested. If she is materialistic, Maggie is also sensuous and loving, qualities Williams admires in her, as he admires Big Daddy's energy. In contrast, conventional religion receives short shrift both from Big Daddy and through the contemptible Reverend Tooker.
Though Big Mamma has strength - she's been running the establishment for the past three years - Baron accepts the other characters can come close to stereotypes; it is a production's job to keep this from happening.