Friday, September 06, 2013

Sweet Bird of Youth flies away...

Last week I finally saw the Old Vic's production of Tennessee Williams' 1959 play SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH in it's last week.  When we arrived there was a queue snaking around onto Waterloo Road just to collect tickets.  When I finally got to the counter they hadn't even printed my tickets off for collection.  Jesu Christi - what on earth had they been doing all day?

I had seen the play once before, in 1985 when Harold Pinter directed Lauren Bacall and Michael Beck (whatever happened to...) at the Haymarket in a production of which I retain the flimsiest of shadowy images.  I do remember Bacall being suitably domineering when her character flared into full diva status but unable to convince as the scared and frantic washed-up star. 

I had also seen Richard Brooks' 1962 film version in which Paul Newman (Chance), Geraldine Page (Alexandra), Madeleine Sherwood (Miss Lucy) and Rip Torn (Tom Jnr) recreated their original stage roles while Ed Begley won an Academy Award as the corrupt politician 'Boss' Finley.  Geraldine Page was memorable in only her fourth film role.

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH was almost the last of Williams' run of 'classic' plays with just THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA to come.  In 1963, written in the shadow of his partner's death, THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE started the decline in both quality and his popularity.  His alcoholism and drug dependency made the quality of his later plays more erratic and harder to like so he was judged by producers and critics to be a busted flush.

Knowing this, it makes SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH an unsettling experience as the air of desperation at the passing of time hangs heavily on the main characters.  Another reason why I like the play less than his earlier works is I feel Williams' ambivalence towards his characters.  None of his characters here are written with the love you feel he invested in Laura Wingfield, Blanche du Bois, Lady Torrence or Maggie & Brick.  Although both Alexandra and Chance can easily be seen as having the traits of Williams' 'fugitive kind', they both lack Williams' soul.

Chance Wayne (Seth Numeric) returns to his home town on America's Gulf Coast, hiding out in the shabby elegance of the hotel where he once worked in the bar.  Chance left with hopes of becoming a film star but his dream foundered and he ended up as the plaything of rich, older women.

His latest meal-ticket is film star Alexandra Del Largo (Kim Cattrall) who is travelling with him under the name of Princess Kosmonopolis.  She too is a fugitive from her life as she believes her screen comeback has failed disastrously and is lost in drink, drugs and hysteria.

However Chance wants to use Alexandra for one more... er... chance: wanting her to use her alleged star power to launch him as her new 'discovery'.  But he also has an ulterior motive - to win back his first love, the groanworthy-named Heavenly (Louise Dylan) who is unfortunately the daughter of 'Boss' Finley (Owen Roe) the town's corrupt and white supremacist politician.

What Chance doesn't know is that after his last visit, he gave Heavenly an STD which has resulted in her father forcing her to have a hysterectomy and he is now out for revenge...

Director Marianne Elliott threw everything at the audience: in the big climactic scene, we have flashbulbs going off, thunder and lightning as a storm breaks, 'Boss' Finley haranguing the audience on large TV screens and amplified sound and Finley's thugs beating up a heckler while Finley's mistress screams her head off.  The odd thing was that none of it seemed out of place!  She also kept the pace going until the final scene which seemed oddly becalmed.

In a cast where the accents swung all over the place, the best performance came from Owen Roe as 'Boss' Finley who cast a loathsome shadow over the play as an all-too-believable "Family & State" politician who approves of castrating black men and denies the existence of his mistress.  I liked Kim Cattrall's exhausted and suspicious Alexandra, in particular how she slipped back into the manner of the screen diva as easily as donning her fur wrap.  She certainly humanised Alexandra - but does a humanised Alexandra serve the play?  I'm not really sure it does.

For the most part Seth Numrich was fine as Chance, his self-belief radiating from him but in the last scene I felt he simply drained away the closer Chance got to his destiny.  This production knitted together several versions of the play and Numrich's poetic last lines seemed oddly out of keeping with his performance up until then.  Also a special mention for Brid Brennan's Aunt Nonnie, a woman used to being ignored and browbeaten in the Finley household.

I also feel compelled to mention Lucy Robinson playing 'Boss' Finley's not-so-secret mistress Miss Lucy who gave a performance of quite jangling inadequacy.  It's a role that gives some spark of humanity as the forces of darkness move in but her shockingly poor attempt at a Southern accent had me wishing one of designer Rae Smith's peeling columns to fall on her just to stop the noise.

I am glad I saw it as it made me reassess this play in contrast with Tennessee Williams' earlier plays but I left the theatre with the feeling that the full power this play is capable of had not been fully explored.

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