Big Daddy and his brood are enjoying somewhat of a revival. In recent years two Broadway productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning drama centred on the dysfunctional Pollit family, have received critical acclaim in both the US and the UK. Debbie Allen’s 2008 all- African American adaptation, featuring James Earl Jones as the domineering yet doomed patriarch, along with last year’s staging, which saw Scarlett Johanssen sharpen her claws as Maggie the cat have ensured Williams’ Southern gothic brand of theatre is en vogue once again.
This autumn, the play will get another do-over from Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and in New Orleans, Tennessee’s beloved adoptive home town three new productions have been thrilling theatre-goers this spring.
The enduring popularity of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was, unsurprisingly, a much discussed topic at this year’s Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, an annual celebration of Williams and his work, for which I and numerous others: academics, fans and curious observers gathered at the end of March for a four day literary and theatrical blow-out.
Sixty nine years on from the Cat’s original Broadway production; in fact a mere two days shy of its exact opening night I made my way to see its latest incarnation housed in the beautifully restored, recently re-opened Petite Theatre du Vieux Carre; which stands just off Jackson Square – a location made famous the world over by another of Williams’ iconic plays: A Streetcar Named Desire. This production, part of the Tennessee Williams Festival’s theatre offerings is the work of local theatre company the NOLA Project, and from opening night onwards proved itself a must-see.
Cat holds a great deal of personal significance for me. It was the first of Williams’ plays that I read as a fifteen year-old in a school nestled deep in the South Wales Valleys, a world away from the cotton field-filled vastness of the Mississippi Delta. That first teenage reading setting me on an ongoing literary trail way below the Mason- Dixon line in a land so distinctly other from my own; one filled with streetcars and iguanas, faded, jaded beauty and the menace of modernity chipping away at the safety of tradition.
Yet, as my mind wandered the acres of Big Daddy’s plantation; struggled with Brick’s liquor-soaked limpet-like grip on the past and with Maggie’s easy disregard of it in order to ensure her future, Williams’ world began to seem closer. Though his characters are as deeply rooted in Southern soil as he himself was, his presentation of raw, un-cut human emotion transcends borders, crosses cultures; it has universality unrivalled by his contemporaries. Without doubt Cat on a hot Tin Roof is as achingly relevant today as it was nearly three quarters of a century ago.
The morning following the NOLA Project’s performance, I met director Beau Bratcher in the deserted theatre lobby before his preparations for the Saturday matinée began.
Cerith Mathias: This is the NOLA Project’s first Tennessee Williams production, as a theatre company based in the adopted home of arguably twentieth century America’s greatest playwright – did you feel a pressure when dealing with his work? Is that why you’ve waited until now?
Beau Bratcher: Well we’re a young company. James Yeargain, who plays Brick and I are two of the older members. We’re in our thirties and the rest of the company is predominantly in their twenties. I think we needed to grow into Tennessee Williams. It’s very important to us that we cast as appropriately as possible to tell stories honestly. Williams writes more for middle age so that I think is part of it, and just finding the right time and the right project has been part of it. We’ve been in discussions with the Williams Festival here for the last three years on and off about putting together a project and this was just the right time for this play.
Why did you choose Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
I think one of the things that spoke to me so much about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was that it really is a story of generational changes. That is a big theme in a lot of our works, it’s because we’re in the middle of a generation shift. But also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof hasn’t been done at the festival for a while. I think that the last time it was done was over a decade ago.
Yet currently there are three different productions, including the NOLA Project, being staged here in New Orleans at the moment. Is there a reason behind the revival?
I think that things go in waves. Two years ago when Southern Rep did Streetcar another production of Streetcar happened on the North Shore and another down in Lockport so you know it’s very cyclical. When people hear it’s time to do something then it gets in everybody’s brain. It doesn’t really affect our audiences when multiple productions happen; it’s just interesting that they’re all happening at the same time.
Williams’ work is both deeply rooted in the South and also in the time that it was written – the mid- Twentieth Century. Do the different productions going on show it’s still a play that people find relevant today?
Totally. And I think what resonated the most with me was my parents are in their 60s, I grew up on a cattle farm and my parents always had the intention they were going to pass it on to me. I worked the cattle, I worked the land when I was growing up and it was the way of life. Theatre didn’t exist to me in the time that I was there. I didn’t find theatre until sophomore year of college so when I started down this path, I just kept getting farther and farther away from that life and in the last year and a half my parents have gotten older and have been having more and more trouble doing everything themselves so a year ago I went back home to Texas to help them sell off everything because it wasn’t the life that I was going to lead. So going through that definitely influenced my reading of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I think something so prevalent with my generation right now is the passing of the torch, but sometimes that next generation doesn’t want that torch. They want to make their own way.
The play deals with many themes: confronting lies and liars, dissatisfaction with life, facing death. Was the family dynamic a theme that you were keen to explore?
The relationships were the most important thing to try and tell. But personally, I think the father and son dynamic of the play was the thing that drove me the hardest. Williams has written works that are so real, emotionally and that’s a hard thing to write because people try too hard to write it and it ultimately becomes a cliché. That’s one of the elements about Tennessee Williams that’s so brilliant, he’s just so real. Growing up in the South, in high school we only really read two playwrights – we read a William Shakespeare play every single year and we read a Tennessee Williams play every single year, so I was exposed to that greatness early on.
Williams is well known for his detailed and extensive stage directions, as a director looking to put his own stamp on the production how open to interpretation do you consider them to be?
I stuck to some of them and I threw out some of them.
How do you come to those decisions?
Well part of it is what is working for us in the moment because I want the moment to be based in truth. I want to create a world with the actors that they can inhabit and live and breathe in. And when his stage directions work for that, we’ll employ them but when it pushes the actors to a place that springs false then we’ll disregard it. I love Tennessee Williams but some of his stage directions are impossible – I don’t know how an actor does that. There was one stage direction that tickled us so much in rehearsal. It was a stage direction about Big Mama which was essentially ‘She’s so full of grace in this moment that she almost stops being fat.’ Just how does an actress portray that? It comes at the moment that is hardest for Big Mama, just after she’s found out Big Daddy’s dying of cancer and she’s thinking how does she resolve herself to take care of this man who is now facing death and what is her life going to be like and it has nothing to do with her weight, that is completely beyond the point of that moment.
The grotesque tragi-comedic element of Williams’ work shines through in this production. Last night was the first audience I’ve seen respond to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof fully in the way Williams intended. He, himself, would reportedly sit in the audience of the first Broadway production and cackle heartily at Maggie’s struggles. Is that fine balance between comedy and high drama difficult to capture?
A lot of it is letting the words speak for themselves and I think part of it too is, in the South, when things are hard; the best way for us to get through it I’ve always found is to find a way to laugh at ourselves. It’s really the only way that I’ve found to get through the roughest times and to make fun of ourselves and I think that there’s elements of that making fun of each other and of ourselves that gets people through. Big Mama’s been called fat at least since she married Big Daddy and that’s just a part of her life but she knows by him calling her that that he’s getting a little chuckle out of it and it’s bringing joy to him. So there is grotesqueness about it but at the same time it’s their relationship and that’s how they communicate love, it’s very true to life.
The matinée is about to start, will you be sat in the back keeping an eye on the performance like Williams used to?
No. I’ll poke my head in every now and then and watch a couple of moments but I’ll probably come and sit in the lobby and wait until the show’s over. During the rehearsal process the show is mine. It’s my belief that as a director that when the rehearsal process starts, I’m the person who knows the most about the play because I’ve done my months of research and I’ve put everything together – we’re going to be telling my vision of the story. At the rehearsal process the actors begin to know their characters and take over the ownership from me. Once the show is open the show is theirs, it’s no longer mine and I want them to be free to live it.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof