Noël Coward Theatre, London
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by James Macdonald
|The play's company
Set in a rundown hotel in 1940, atop the cliffs of Mexico’s Pacific coast , Tennessee Williams’ The Night Of The Iguana offers up a glimpse of troubled lives in a dramatic cocktail that proves as intoxicating as a well mixed rum coco. The play was inspired by Williams’ own 1940 Mexican travels and his evident love for both time and place – and all set in a period before America had been sucked into the maelstrom of World War 2 – are evident.
Clive Owen plays the Rev Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked minister now banished from the USA and reduced to leading guided tours around the world’s less glamorous regions. Shannon has led a reluctant party of Texan schoolgirls and their teacher (Finty Williams as a wonderfully Southern Baptist Judith Fellowes) to the hotel - a stop not included on the published itinerary - and their apparent entrapment at the remote location only heightens aspects of the story’s tension. We learn that Shannon has committed statutory rape (sex with minors) and as the evening unfolds we witness this priapic priest barely able to control his lust. Owen (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeremy Clarkson) is on stage throughout most of the play, and his delivery of this strangely, vilely, complex role is a tour de force.
Playing Maxine Faulk, the wise and recently widowed hotelier, is Anna Gunn. There is evidently a complex history to Faulk and Shannon. She knows him inside out, replete with all his failings and yet is passionately drawn to the deeply damaged man. Gunn’s work is masterful – sassy yet vulnerable, and hinting at an absolutely fascinating back story.
And then arriving at the hotel are the penniless Hannah Jelkes played by Lia Williams, a middle-aged (con) artist accompanied by her nonagenarian poet grandfather, delightfully fleshed out by Julian Glover. Williams lays down yet further sadness as Jelkes outlines her back story of a woman who has seen love pass her by, save for two seedy encounters over many decades - and a childhood that she hints at as having been traumatised by profound emotional and sexual abuse.
This being 1940, (and the play having been written in 1961) Williams also cheekily lobs in a family of raucous Germans to his “Mexican Berchtesgaden”, Nazis fleeing Europe and using Mexico either as a gateway to South America or a back-door to the States.
The play’s themes are as complex as they are ultimately simple - but what stands out from this three hour opus is that it was written at a time when literary craftsmanship was at its finest. Williams touches upon some of the most painful and intimate aspects of humanity - sex, love, loneliness and abuse – but does so throughout with a beautiful and carefully worded prose that displays a complete absence of profanity. The strength of The Night Of The Iguana rests upon a sensational cast bringing the most sensitive of images into relief, via their spoken word. As they perform, the most moving and painful vignettes play out in our minds’ eyes - and it makes for a truly rare event to see theatre that is so richly created and performed.
James Macdonald has assembled a masterful team of creatives. Rae Smith’s mountainous Latin mountaintop convinces on its own – but accompanied by Max Pappenheim’s exquisite soundscape, the suspension of our disbelief is complete. The Night Of The Iguana is world class theatre.
Runs until 28th September
Runs until 28th September
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg