revew: Roy Alexander Weise – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof/
by Tennessee Williams/
dir Roy Alexander Weise/
design Milla Clarke/
composer & sound design Alexandra Faye Braithwaite/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
24 March – 29 April 2023//
Air Looms, exploded rooms
‘The arrangement of the furniture is at the same time the sketch plan of murder cases, and the perspective of the suite of rooms dictates the victim’s escape route… The middle-class interior of the 1860s to 1890s with its giant sideboards heavy with woodcarving, the sunless corners where the palm stands, the bay window with its shielding balustrade, and those long corridors with the singing gas flame proves fit only to house the corpse.’ – Walter Benjamin, One Way Street
‘As boys raise a kite in the air, so these wretches, by means of the air-loom and magnetic impregnations, contrive to lift into the brain some particular idea, which floats and undulates in the intellect for hours together.’ – John Haslam, Illustrations of Madness
‘It is Victorian with a touch of the Far East […] the room must evoke some ghosts.’ – Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The first thing to mention is Milla Clarke’s design, which creates a giant mobile above an empty crib. This is Maggie and Brick’s bedroom. Even before the play opens, Brick and Maggie are babied and they are mocked for their infertility. The scale of the contraption above them makes them tiny. From its heavy and asymmetrical rotating arms hang speaker cones; it has the look of an obscure machine of surveillance. It fills the air above the playing space like a broken golden spider, feeling like it is watching, receiving as much as it is emitting. In his typically detailed opening stage directions, Williams describes ‘a monumental monstrosity peculiar to our times, a huge console combination of radio-phonograph (Hi-Fi with three speakers) TV set and liquor cabinet, bearing and containing many glasses and bottles, all in one piece.’
The monstrosity in this production is exploded – no longer the huge and heavy (and ugly) solid piece sitting against a wall, it is the whole room. The Hi-Fi is the sky, the liquor cabinet is the set Maggie and Brick move inside of. It is of course still ugly, in a gaudy, Gatsbyesque way. All across history, rich people have had no taste. In Roy Alexander Weise’s production, Brick lives inside his liquor cabinet, which is also a crib, which is also an incessantly moving, exploded machine.
John Haslam is credited with documenting the first recognised case of paranoid schizophrenia, in his patient James Tilly Matthews. Matthews was convinced a criminal gang were torturing and manipulating him from a distance, using a device he called ‘the Air Loom’. The Air Loom was capable of producing magnetic fields which interrupted its victims’ bodily functions, causing pain or the insertion of intrusive thoughts. Matthews was unwell, but his delusions are still compelling because they connect with something which was true in 1797, and is true now. Our lives and our bodies are out of our control.
Brick has abandoned control of his life; he uses alcoholism to seize control of his body before anyone can make practical or emotional demands of him. His agency is exercised in drinking until he feels a ‘click’ in his head (he is a machine for drinking) and he feels an inner calm. Maggie is relatively new to the lifestyle afforded by the wealthy family she has married into, and is far more aware of the mechanisms at work seeking to deprive her of this comfort. Her brother- and sister-in-law want to inherit the estate; all that stands in their way is convincing the family that Brick is too great a drunk to justify the property passing to him. The final defensive weapon at Maggie’s disposal is to become pregnant by Brick, who hasn’t slept with her in months. Upon this fulcrum of reproductive power, she hopes to secure her and her husband’s future.
The plantation house is a machine for controlling its inhabitants. The bedroom Brick and Maggie share is porous; they can be heard through the walls when they argue at night; they can hear the guests at the party below them; the family pass through the multiple entrances and exits at that leisure. The bedroom does not belong to Maggie and Brick – it doesn’t even belong to Big Mama and Big Daddy – it is ultimately home to the unexorcised ghosts of Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, the homosexual former owners of the plantation. Though holders of ultimate power, though granted the power to lift Big Daddy from a lifetime of toil, they are ‘fairies’, and their wretched gay ghosts haunt Brick and extract him from control over his life, and a relationship with those who love him. The exclusionary premise of capitalism is at work here even within the home it has built for those who serve it best.
Wealth is here in the possession of objects which are not even ostentatious. Acquisition and the ability to purchase are the signifiers of power in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Mama has a whole collection of expensive pieces which sit ruined and unmourned in the waterlogged cellar. Maggie and her in-laws are battling over their potential (if imminent) inheritance. Big Daddy speculates, ‘I got enough money to feed that goddamn country [Spain]’. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a play about speculation – about the space between material means and their impact on reality – a play about truth and lies (the family is a machine for lying).
The working of the infernal, imaginary Air Loom from the imagination of James Tilly Matthews is inaccurate only in its specificity. Yes, our lives, actions, health are being influenced by forces larger than us, but the coercion is coming from inside the house.
The family is a machine for lying. The tale of Matthews’s Air Loom is told by his surveiller. By the same token, the story of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is written by the striving of capital to preserve power. The power the family live within tricks them into believing they can mould reality – Big Daddy cannot countenance ever being vulnerable enough to be killed by cancer, and so the family serve his delusion. Brick claims he’s straight; Big Mama claims Big Daddy loves her; Maggie claims she is pregnant, then announces she is going to make it true. Whoever you are, under capitalism, delusion is necessary to avoid despair. Even though the lies are fragile, they must be believed, or the steady accruing of power shows itself for the selfish evil it is; Big Daddy must believe he has earned what he has, otherwise he must realise he is evil.
The problem for the family is that lying doesn’t change reality, it only makes the truth crueller.
The theatre building is a machine, too. The Royal Exchange is uniquely finely suited for a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (This is a delusion which any production should labour to induce; Where more perfect a place than here? Where more perfect a night than tonight?) The demand of Cat is that Straw and Ochello’s bedroom is porous, never private, ownership of the space a mere formality. The bedroom is the entire house, the whole domestic space is compressed here – the beauty of the Royal Exchange is that the playing space is accessible from all sides via seven entrances, and when voices are echoing in from afar, they are really echoing from the far reaches of the immense exchange hall. The stage is a point of surveillance; as an audience we experience the same sense of being surrounded as Brick and Maggie do, the action is on all sides.
If Straw and Ochello were real, their exports would have been traded in this hall. The gaudy columns are decorated with depictions of cotton plants, and the original trading board still hangs on the wall, announcing long-dead numbers which continue to haunt us. Even over a great distance, the dead and invisible leave their mark on the present. Keisha Thompson (now AD of Contact Theatre) was commissioned to write a poem which hangs on the theatre module here: ‘There is no solution for our discomfort or the incongruence of a democratic space within authoritarian walls’. Thompson is punning, ‘solution’ is also the fluid air filling the hall, in which the theatre module here is literally suspended, supported by its own version of the hanging mobile onstage, too heavy to rest on the old floor. The cradle Maggie and Brick are trapped inside is the coercive space of the family, which is the coercive space of capitalism, a fluid which flows into every available space, which we breathe in and out, which we and our arts scene remain suspended in today.
‘The new is too heavy to rest on the old floor,’ is an appropriate metaphor for the remounting of classics, for our antiquated theatre infrastructures, for my ennui when thinking about theatre in the UK, when thinking about criticism. I love Tennessee Williams, to the point I have told friends that ‘putting on a Tennessee Williams is cheating.’ I do love theatre, and in Roy Alexander Weise’s production there was not a weak link. But I notice the building, which was there already; and I notice the industry I am trying to work inside; and of course, of course, I notice capitalism, how could I fail to? Perhaps when the new is doing its work properly, it does not save the old floor, but collapses it.
Theatre has the power to call things to our attention, if we are willing to let it. Criticism is a kind of paranoia; we have to see things which are not literally there; we have to imagine that the world has an underlying logic, and then the things we uncover are a metaphor for what is really at work. We tell stories, and even if telling a story does not change reality, it changes which parts of it we see.
‘Just because you’re paranoid/ Don’t mean they’re not after you.’ – Kurt Cobain, Territorial Pissings