Once again, NT Live offers us the chance to see a noteworthy production we’d otherwise be consigned to reading about. For David Lan, who has stepped down from his role as the Young Vic’s artistic director, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a triumphant swan song, elegantly directed by Benedict Andrews, and beautifully performed.
The audacious casting certainly pays off. Sienna Miller’s Maggie is a standout, all bravado and desperation: strong but vulnerable; gorgeous but unloved. She really is like the titular cat, prowling the room, unsure how to function in a world where everything has changed. Brick refuses to acknowledge her, whatever she says, whatever she does. She talks incessantly, needling and provoking, removing her clothes, painting her face. Nothing works. She’s lost him. It’s a bravura performance, a faultless incarnation of a classic role.
Jack O’Connell also gives an impressive turn as Brick, the handsome football-star-turned-alcoholic, traumatised by his best friend, Skipper’s suicide, unable to accept his own homosexuality. Brick is a complex character, at once the most honest and the most duplicitous in the play. He refuses to indulge the ‘happy family’ façade, makes no secret of his drinking, doesn’t care who hears him rejecting his wife. But he lies to himself about his feelings for Skipper, even when Big Daddy offers him absolution; his own prejudices too ingrained to allow him to face the truth. O’Connell imbues Brick with dignity, despite his obvious descent; it’s a clever, nuanced portrayal of a truly tortured soul.
Colm Meany is suitably awful as the tyrannical Big Daddy, a Trump-like figure whose only redeeming feature is his willingness to accept his favourite son’s sexuality. But it’s Lisa Palfrey as Big Momma who really intrigues me: she plays the matriarch as an infantalised neurotic, who has to be protected from realities she can’t stand. Big Daddy openly despises her, calls her fat and stupid; she responds in a high-pitched, lilting, little-girl voice, her ‘He doesn’t mean it’ lines imbued with the rhythm of a fingers-in-the-ear-la-la-la denial. It’s a very different interpretation of the character from any I’ve seen before, but it absolutely works.
There’s not much to criticise here, although I do think more could be done to create the sense of sweltering heat and claustrophobia inside the house. It’s all there in the dialogue, but I never really feel it. The modern setting means there are none of the traditional plantation shutters and whirring fans, and that’s okay – I like the set – but I think I’d like the ice to melt, to know that the water in the shower is cold, to understand why Maggie is wearing tights when it’s so hot. Still, these are mere quibbles.
If you haven’t seen this yet, there’s sure to be an encore screening soon. I urge you to catch it.