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‘Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind, violent,” says a Nantucket spinster in Tennessee Williams’s 1961 study in solitude. But, while that line epitomises the author’s own generosity of spirit, which comes through clearly in James Macdonald’s typically meticulous production, there is a languor to the play that marks it out from Williams’s earlier driven masterpieces.
The setting is the veranda of a hotel in the Gulf of Mexico in 1940 and the four main characters are in different stages of desperation. Maxine Faulk, the hotel’s recently widowed owner, has an unsatisfied hunger for life. The Rev Shannon, locked out of his church for fornication and heresy and reduced to escorting bus parties around Mexico, arrives to suffer one of his periodic crack-ups. He finds an unexpected soulmate in the virginal Hannah Jelkes, a watercolourist who roams the world hustling a meagre living with her 97-year-old grandfather, who is struggling to complete his final poem.
Like Chekhov, Williams offers a hymn to human endurance. While I admire his compassion for four wrecked souls, the most problematic character is Shannon, whom I find it difficult to like. Clive Owen, in dilapidated white linen suit, plays him with the right nervous intensity, signalled by a shaking right hand. But Shannon is accused of seducing an underage girl, cruelly abandons the Texan Baptist ladies in his charge, constantly insults Maxine and appears to relish his breakdown. Owen faithfully captures all this but there is an element of narcissism to Shannon’s neurosis that keeps you at a distance.
Much the most fascinating character is Hannah, unforgettably played by Eileen Atkins in Richard Eyre’s 1992 National Theatre revival. Lia Williams brings her own particular qualities to the role – suggesting an inner toughness and sharp wit beneath this spry, bird-like solitary. When a trussed-up Shannon claims, “A man can die of panic,” Williams quickly retorts: “Not if he enjoys it as much as you.” Even if her accent occasionally veers from old Scotland to New England, Williams renders Hannah’s account of her two brief sexual encounters with a deeply touching acceptance of the waywardness of human passion.
Anna Gunn, best known as Skyler White in Breaking Bad, lends the proprietary Maxine a radiant sensuality that belies her profound loneliness and rampant jealousy. Julian Glover hints at a wicked humour in the nonagenarian poet and reads his final poem with great dignity, while Finty Williams invests a mercilessly abused vocal teacher with a justified outrage. Rae Smith has created a monumental set dominated by a sheer, weather-beaten cliff and Neil Austin’s lighting, poetically capturing the stormy sunsets of the tropics, is as moving as anything in the evening.
It is all very well done. Yet, while this is often described as Williams’s last really good play, it carries intimations of his decline. It is full of underdeveloped characters, including a quartet of cartoonish German tourists noisily rejoicing in the bombing of London. The parallel between the captive iguana, tied by the throat and craving freedom, and Hannah’s dying grandfather is also remorselessly spelt out. I felt as I did at a recent revival of Orpheus Descending: this may not be vintage Williams, but it survives through its opportunities for actors and the author’s boundless charity.
• At Noël Coward theatre, London, until 28 September.
Source: The Guardian
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