BWW Interview: Lia Williams Talks THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA at Noel Coward Theatre
BroadwayWorld spoke to her about Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana, which opens tonight at the Noël Coward Theatre and in which she plays the character of Hannah Jelkes. Directed by James Macdonald, Williams stars alongside Anna Gunn, Clive Owen and Julian Glover.
What comes to mind when you read Tennessee Williams' work?
Flight. I think he is known by people who knew him as 'Tennessee the bird' and the brilliant thing about his writing is that it is not only colloquial, and therefore accessible, but also it is the most exquisite poetry. I started reading Tennessee when I was 17 and I find it utterly beautiful.
Since beginning rehearsals, what have you learnt about The Night of the Iguana?
The thing about any great writing is that it gets bigger as you look into it more. It takes flight immediately, but it is a frightening experience for an actor as it gets richer and deeper. Opening one door also means opening ten more. There is also, however, great humour and soul and you need to balance all those things up. You need to spin a lot of plates at once.
There's been a lot of work by Williams currently on in London recently, including Orpheus Descending at the Menier Chocolate Factory and The Glass Menagerie at the Arcola. What is his appeal to audiences today?
Maybe it's offering an antidote to the brutal environment we're in right now. Tennessee asks a lot of questions about the human condition and that makes it accessible to anyone who chooses to see it. He writes about people with flaws and maybe there is a hunger for a big human story that asks big questions and contemplates big ideas. That's certainly what it is for me.
There is a wonderful tension underneath Night of the Iguana - it's as if the tropical setting creates an uncomfortable, liminal space for this bizarre group of characters. How does this production recreate this setting?
The idea in this piece is that you have three characters who are hanging onto the edge of themselves. The play is set in a ramshackle hotel that is, literally, hanging onto a cliff. There are these fragile lives in a great big planet and the storm is coming. It's a beautiful setting. James Macdonald, the director, has not gone distractingly conceptual with it but has rooted the play in the truth of what Tennessee was trying to write. We have a magnificent set, a storm, rain - it's a beautifully full and rich production.
As a tour guide Shannon says he wants people to see "the underworld of all places". Do you think the three central characters descend and ascend or are they stuck in this underworld?
I would say that once you've seen the underworld you cannot come up again, but you teach yourself to live with it. That is one of the play's central themes: learning to live with despair but, ultimately, still living. That in itself is a beautiful idea.
I'd say it's Tennessee's most spiritual play - he is grappling with the concept of what God is and what that means to us and how you cope once you've hit the bottom of the well. It's not necessarily that you climb back to the top, but you learn to live with what you have, and in which there is beauty, humour and understanding. We live in a culture now where everything is a quick fix, but this is not about that at all.
How do these features of grace, beauty and humour apply to your character, Hannah? Shannon says to Hannah "Don't tell me you have a dark side to your nature". Where does this dark side come from?
The connection between her and Shannon is that they have both been to the same place, it's just that she is a little ahead of him emotionally. He's wrecked and in torment at the point of meeting. Hannah knows what that is because she's had it in her life. She has chosen to be alone in the world, apart from being a carer for her grandfather, and she will probably continue to be alone after he dies. She has hit the bottom of the well, which she recognises in Shannon and he recognises that in her. They spend the evening discussing their experiences and what it means to be alive following it.
Hannah has pulled suffering into herself and transforms it, whereas Shannon lashes out. They both have great wit, and their ability to laugh at and with each other is another connection. Hannah is astonishingly strong and fragile at the same time, and that's the difficult reach for an actor.
This quiet sense of power and living a life alone does sound similar to the figure of Jean Brodie, who you recently played at the Donmar. Do you see similarities between them as characters?
A lot of the characters I play - including Hannah, Jean Brodie, and even Elizabeth and Mary in Mary Stuart - are rarely stereotypical. I am drawn to those roles because I find them fascinating in their complexity and that provides a real challenge for me. To find the differences between vulnerability, strength and humour is definitely what I draw on and what I was drawn to here. They are all also passionate - they are alive in the world and they are raw. I love those roles.
Can you speak of Williams' use of humour during this play?
One of Tennessee's great landmarks is his humour, which is used to puncture despair. His characters can laugh at themselves and the world even if they are experiencing the greatest torture imaginable. That's really recognisable for us and also necessary for our survival. We can look at big and difficult events with humour.
How do you think Williams writes women in Night of the Iguana?
He puts himself into every role he writes. I did A Streetcar Named Desire in Dublin, but before that I went out to Clarkesdale, where Tennessee lived with his grandfather and did a Mississippi trip, ending up in New Orleans where he wrote the play. I feel profoundly that the closer you got to the writer, the closer you get to the character.
Tennessee absolutely invests everything that he is into every character, so I don't think he writes in terms of gender but emotional intelligence. He makes his women as much a part of his own experiences in life as he does, even probably more so than his male characters. Shannon is one of his most exciting characters, as he has the raw, emotional energy that drives the play.
If Night of the Iguana is trying to pose one question, what is it - and do we get an answer?
I think good writing doesn't tell us what to think or feel, but throws ideas at us and gives us the respect and space to choose what we need from the experience of watching it. For me, that's the secret of great writing. I think Night of the Iguana questions what God means to us here and now, and questions the suggestion that we must dig deeper into ourselves and not judge everyone so immediately.
It also throws up the idea that we go to very dark places as human beings but that we can also come back from this, so there's a sense of triumph to the piece, which makes us glorious as people in our ability to continue and survive. It's not an empty piece: if we get it right, you should leave questioning and take the play with you.
What have you taken from the play so far?
It's the strength and the depth of who we are. Tennessee was very hopeful about human beings: despite his drinking and depression, he still believed human beings were magnificent. What I take from this piece the most is that we are not only so many things wrapped into one parcel but also very contradictory, and that makes us glorious.
What are you keen to see on stage at the moment?
I have booked to see the Hofesh Shechter Dance Company in Bilbao at the end of this run and I can't wait.
Why should audiences see this play?
It's like eating a gourmet meal - there will not be any short-changing sensually, visually or emotionally. You'll be challenged in your mind and spirit and you'll laugh.
Photograph credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg