BWW Review: THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, Noel Coward Theatre
In Tahiti in 1940, a penniless Tennessee Williams lay in a hammock beside another writer also despairing of ever finding success, both binge-drinking rum-cocos and welcoming the dramatic storms that temporarily eclipsed their melancholy. To make matters worse, a party of German Nazis was bragging about their success in the war, and Williams' friend pitched "the long swim to China".Though flirting with such suicidal thoughts, Williams actually came out of that experience wanting to embrace life "on any terms that were offered". Both locale and a similar arc fuel his 1961 play, set in a rundown hotel in the Mexican rainforest, where a collection of disparate - and desperate - strangers is brought together on one sweltering, stormy night.
Perhaps best known for John Huston's film adaptation, starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr, James Macdonald's production actually demonstrates the work's innate theatricality, the sense of collective claustrophobia and intense shared journey through this dark night of the soul.
Revered T Shannon was locked out of his own church after calling God "a senile delinquent", and is also a serial seducer of young women. The latter includes a 16-year-old musical prodigy among the Texan Baptist schoolteachers he's meant to be guiding around Mexico - to the fury of her chaperone, who's determined to get him at least fired, if not locked up.
Shannon seeks refuge in the establishment run by his friends Fred and Maxine Faulk, only to find that Fred has recently died. He also meets the enigmatic New England spinster Hannah Jelkes, travelling with her grandfather Nonno - a 97-year-old in failing health, who is nonetheless determined to finish his last poem - and there are surreal cameo appearances from a group of crowing Nazis in tight swimwear.
Clive Owen takes what can be a showy central role, but the surprising beauty of Macdonald's revival is how much the material is underplayed, emphasising the dry wit and allowing the quieter moments to assume real power and profundity. Though if you like your Tennessee Williams with constant histrionics and fireworks, this may not be the production for you.
Owen's Shannon is clinging to the last shreds of his pride and dignity, trying to maintain a front - but, shaking and sweating in his crumpled linen, is clearly an addict on the verge of collapse. He speaks of returning to the church, but it visibly torments him; at one point, he almost throttles himself with his gold crucifix.
His self-pity when it comes to bedding (and striking) women is hard to stomach; of the now tearful and agonised teen who trails after him, he nastily claims "the kid asked for it". It's presented as just another urge, another sin, but - unlike his drinking and depression - there are clear victims of his behaviour. However, it's mostly framed as dark farce, complete with an outsized villain in the severe Miss Fellowes (a nevertheless game Finty Williams).
Fortunately, the truly excellent second half sees Hannah call Shannon on his theatrical displays - some of Williams' recent Miss Jean Brodie creeping into her crisp rebuke. But it comes from a place of empathy and experience: she too is a jobbing hustler, and she has faced what he terms "the spook". There's no magic solution, the play suggests, except endurance, and maybe a touch of grace.
It's surprisingly low-key, but when you have actors of this calibre, simply swapping tales while illuminated by a transcendent shaft of light, it becomes spellbinding theatre. Seeing Williams' cool, patrician Hannah gradually open up, just enough to meet Shannon at his most sensitive, is mesmeric, and rather than hammering us with bombast, it draws the audience in.
Alongside exquisitely judged performances from Owen and Williams, who share crackling chemistry, Anna Gunn also pitches the bawdy, widowed Maxine just right. Though seemingly in her element, whether directing employees, wrangling guests or teasing Shannon, Gunn shows the crippling loneliness that drives her attempts at seduction, and which belie her repeated assertions that it wasn't much of a marriage.
There's a gripping battle of wills between the women, which (fortunately) goes far beyond simple jealousy or possession of Shannon. Physically and temperamentally, they're stark opposites - carnality versus faith - and yet there's also a mutual recognition of strength. Julian Glover provides bright comic notes, and also some achingly poignant ones, as the poet whose mind is deserting him, along with his sight and hearing, but who still takes pleasure in small victories.
Rae Smith's spectacular cliff-edge set feels alive and psychologically articulate: wind restlessly tossing the leaves on the jungle trees, the craggy mountain strikingly lit by Neil Austin, a monumental storm building and finally unleashing in a torrent. Max Pappenheim's sound design is superb too, from realistic echoes and shouts below to the scuffles and croaks of a captured iguana (though the script overeggs its symbolism). However, a metal rail round the veranda creates occasional sight-line issues.
Atmospheric and quietly moving, this is a patient pilgrimage towards if not happiness, then at least peace - fragile, hard won, and helped along the way by the kindness of a fellow traveller.
Photograph credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg