Roslyn Packer Theatre, May 3


Truth can be even more elusive on a stage than in politics. Some plays are heightened in search of a much deeper truth than mere naturalism can ever hope to dispense. Tennessee Williams wrote lines for his three main characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that sway and lilt and sweat like poetry, only they are cunningly disguised as prose. If you can hunt down the truth in this luxuriant jungle of verse-prose, the trophy is one of the twentieth century’s greatest plays.

Zahra Newman and Harry Greenwood. Photo: Daniel Boud.

The irony, of course, is that finding this truth should be so challenging in a play about people who are all but in capable of discerning between truth and – as Brick calls it – mendacity. While this Kip Williams production (for Sydney Theatre Company) is a refreshing improvement on Simon’s Stone’s 2013 travesty at Belvoir, it falls far short of realising all this complex play offers.

That would not be the case had all the cast excavated the deep beating veracity of their characters to the extent that Hugo Weaving has done. His Big Daddy is a threatening, boastful, big-hearted, mean-spirited powerhouse, with a ruthless will to live. Weaving makes this planation-owning Mississippi patriarch seem to explode from the pages of the Old Testament, and bend the world to his will. His acting conveys a primal ferocity that explains both Big Daddy’s business success and why those around him cower in his shadow. It is a monstrous performance embodying devilish lusts, gloating survival, malevolent resentments and raucous good-humour. Weaving shoves you hard against the back of your seat, and, were he matched by the rest, this would have been riveting theatre.

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Daniel Boud.

But the production instantly deviates from that destination when Kip Williams has Zahra Newman (as Maggie) sing Cry Me a River to open, for no discernible reason. It merely undermines Maggie’s beloved, tone-setting first line to Brick about his brother’s raucous brood: “One of those no-neck monsters hit me with a hot buttered biscuit so I have t’change!” Why would you weaken an opening like that?

Newman’s hyperactive Maggie catches all the character’s vitality, but misses her feline femininity in a welter of overly robust cockiness. Maggie might be sexually exasperated, but she should evince a trace more Southern-belle sophistication than the members of the Pollitt family into which she has married.

Similarly Harry Greenwood (Weaving’s real-life son) misses the mark as Brick. He conveys no sense of the supreme athlete Brick has been, and is too quickly roused to anger. His prevailing air should be numb detachment, other than when he assaults Maggie, and when the Act Two fugue with Big Daddy finally erupts into spearing emotional dissonance.

Pamela Rabe and Harry Greenwood. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Pamela Rabe initially seemed to have an interesting characterisation of Big Mama: a nouveau-rich, faux-glamorous take on this log-fire-in-a-dress that worked well in Act One, but faded to caricature in Act Three. Nikki Shiels is persuasive as the frightful Mae, while Josh McConville (Gooper), Peter Carroll (Reverend Tooker), Anthony Brandon Wong (Doctor Baugh) and a clutch of children complete the cast.

The play famously has two renderings of Act Three: Tennessee Williams’ original and the “Broadway version” penned at the suggestion of the play’s inaugural director, Elia Kazan. Kip Williams has opted for the bleaker original, but added Maggie’s moving final speech from the latter: a good compromise in theory, except that had he installed the complete “Broadway” version, Weaving would have stormed back to pump up what is currently a deflated finale.

Until June 8.