The Night of the Iguana
Noel Coward Theatre, 16th September 2019
Last minute purchase. Just about worthwhile. The Night of the Iguana is not normally considered one of Tennessee William’s greatest hits, and I am certainly no TW completist, but the cast, the director, James Macdonald, the designer, Rae Smith, the pretty good, if mixed, reviews and, yes, the price drew me in.
The inspiration for the play came when TW met another young writer, just returned from Tahiti, in Mexico in September 1940, who was also afflicted with the same “troubled heart” that plagued him. Recognition of his talent, and money, was scarce, and TW was close to giving up, but this kindred soul, the environment, and a bunch of perky Germans, sympathetic to the Nazi cause, who appear in the play, spurred him on. A few rum cocktails, long suicidal and literary chats, and a perilous road trip with another guest, seemed to revive our Tennessee and TNOTI was the result. He turned the original 1948 short story into a one act play in 1959 and then into the three acts in 1961.
It concerns the lugubrious Reverend T Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) a washed up tourist guide and ex-priest, booted out of his church after an inappropriate relationship with a Sunday school teacher alongside borderline blasphemy. He visits the Mexican resort run by Maxine Faulk (Anna Gunn), the widow of his best friend Fred. She is assisted by a couple of workshy local lads (Daniel Chaves and Manuel Pacific). Alongside the aforementioned incongruous Germans, (Alasdair Baker, Timothy Blore, Karin Carlson and Penelope Woodman), we also meet the grumbling Judith Fellowes (Finty Williams), who leads the tour group which Shannon serially disappoints, and Charlotte Goodall (Emma Channing), a 16 year old member of the group who he may have seduced. More importantly the ageing poet Jonathan Coffin “Nonno” (Julian Glover) then arrives with his niece carer, spinster Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams). Wheelchair bound Nonno is on his last legs and the couple rely on charity and artistic hustles to get by.
They are an odd bunch who frankly exhibit some pretty dodgy behaviours. Rev Shannon is supposed to be some kind of melancholic, tortured soul, who has lost his faith and suffered a breakdown, but is still irresistible to women. Maxine, (you will know Anna Gunn from her turn as Skyler in Breaking Bad), is pretty direct in her sexual desire, as is, more disturbingly, Charlotte, who says next to nothing, and Hannah is soon apparently under his spell. Yet, with his drinking and self pity, stumbling around the stage in crumpled linen suit, Clive Owen doesn’t highlight any particular hidden depths. Judith may well come across as typecast harridan but she probably has the measure of the man.
Now this being Tennessee Williams, there is poetry in the dialogue between these rather curious characters, even as the plot goes nowhere, and this, alongside Rae Smith’s set, the hotel verandah backed by a massive cliff and verdant planting, Max Pappenheim’s atmospheric sound and, especially, Neil Austin’s lighting, from bright day to dark night via electric storm, is enough to hold one’s attention. And then there is Lia Williams. She normally finds a way to steal the show, even in supporting roles on screen (The Capture, Kiri, The Crown and The Missing) or stage (The Prime of Miss Julie, Mary Stuart, Oresteia, Skylight), but here the rest of the cast are, metaphorically, in her shadow. In the 1964 film version no less an actor than Deborah Kerr played the role alongside Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, so you can probably imagine there is enough for a skilled actor to work on, but Ms Williams is astonishing. Sharp tongued when required, notably in her spats with Maxine, (who was played by Bette Davies in the original Broadway production so you get the idea), dismissive of Shannon’s indulgence, and drinking, yet utterly bewitching when describing her only brief sexual liaisons to him in the third act confessional scene.
TW wrote a ton more full length and one act plays after TNOTI but as his mental health deteriorated, his drug use increased and relationships failed to match that with soulmate Frank Merlo who died in 1963, nothing came close. I still quite make up my mind where TW sits in the pantheon of great playwrights but, for a few minutes as the two lead characters realised how much happier their lives might have been if they could only have been more like the other, I could, once again, forgive the pun, see the attraction. Like Chekhov a chronicler of lost, and odd, souls.