This Irish solution to a southern problem is a smart choice


CULTURE SHOCK:IN THE FIRST act of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,currently playing at the Gate in Dublin, Maggie tells her estranged husband, Brick: “You have that rare sort of charm that usually only happens in very old or hopelessly sick people, the charm of the defeated.” To the very old and the hopelessly sick, Williams might have added the whole of the Deep South. And we here might further add the Irish. The charm of the defeated is what creates a strange underlying affinity between southern US literature and Irish writing.

In 1942, when Williams was about to emerge as a great American playwright, Cleanth Brooks in his essay What Deep South Literature Needsnoted the parallels: “The Southerner may find himself in the position of the Irish writer of a generation ago . . . his country is a land of romance on the one hand and poverty and bigotry on the other; moreover, it is a land producing a great deal of literature and yet reading very little literature.”

Southern and Irish writers had to navigate their way between the romance and the reality while having to write for an external audience that valued the exotic elements of the romance. The “charm of the defeated”, with all of its attendant mythologies of victimhood, has long been one of the great attractions of both southern and Irish writers for the Anglo-American mainstream.

There are reasons why the great modern myth of the south, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, is so saturated in Irishness (a trait emphasised more heavily for the O’Haras of Tara in the novel than in the movie). It is not just that archetypal southern writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Flannery O’Connor and Mitchell herself had Irish ancestry. Or even that the theatrical connections, from Dion Boucicault’s role as a New Orleans impresario to the predominant Irish part in creating blackface minstrelsy, go deep.

It is rather that “the south” and “Ireland” were, as literary constructs, shaped by some of the same forces. Both developed notions of the Gothic. Poe was influenced by the Irish writer Charles Maturin and in turn influenced Sheridan Le Fanu and James Clarence Mangan. As Declan Kiberd has noted, in a comment that is especially resonant for an Irish production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “Gothic, with its aura of feudal grandeur and ruined glories, may have appealed to a once-proud, now-marginal (Irish) Protestant elite – much as it would appeal to decayed landowners in the American South.” Cat on a Hot Tin Roofis, after all, especially recognisable in Ireland as a big-house play. There are obvious points of contact, for example, with Brian Friel’s The Home Place, just as Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasahas some kinship with The Glass Menagerie. Big Daddy is no aristocrat, and Williams mocks the mythologies of a deep-rooted planter elite. But his vast plantation (which he calls “my kingdom”) and the concern with dynastic succession create a strong link to the notion of a crumbling ascendancy.

These parallels and affinities suggest that it might be possible to present Williams rather differently in Dublin than one might in London or even in New York. A play like Cat on a Hot Tin Roofdoesn’t have to be exotic here.

What makes Mark Brokaw’s production at the Gate so uneasy and uneven is that some of the actors grasp this possibility and others don’t.

Michael Colgan has a fine record of presenting Williams at the Gate and did not need the excuse of his centenary to revisit the playwright. Previously, however, he has tended to build his productions around an American or English star: Frances McDormand, Lia Williams, Francesca Annis. This has meant that the question of an “Irish” approach to Williams has not arisen.

It arises here, though, because the cast is local. There is thus a basic decision to be made. Should a production attempt to recreate a version of the Deep South through the speech and movement of the characters? Or should it simply accept that Irish actors will have their own takes on those characters and play to those strengths? This is not an easy question for an American director like Brokaw to answer. He attempts, essentially, to proceed as if this were an American production. Fiona O’Shaughnessy as Maggie and Richard Flood as Brick put their energies into a search for some kind of southern authenticity.

O’Shaughnessy’s high-octane, febrile southern belle is a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Scarlett O’Hara. This is impressive enough in its own way, but it leaves little room for the psychological subtleties, the manipulative shifts and strategies of Maggie’s desperate struggle for survival.

On the other hand, three of the more experienced actors, Owen Roe, Marion O’Dwyer and Donna Dent, put less energy into authenticity and more into bringing their own knowledge to bear on the characters they play. They don’t bother too much with the baroque twists and turns of the southern accent.

They present the people they’re playing pretty much as if they were their Irish equivalents. Roe’s Big Daddy could be any of our beloved property developers. O’Dwyer’s Big Mama is the Irish Mammy writ very large. Dent’s Mae is any fecund Irish materfamilias trying to claw out territory for her abundant offspring.

This may sound like some kind of laziness or reluctance to travel outside the comfort zone, but it is in fact an intelligent choice. It removes the exotic element from Williams and gives a naked clarity to the characterisations. Roe’s Big Daddy, for example, is brilliantly brutal in his need to control everything, especially time and death. By making Williams’s people seem more familiar, these performances also make their gladiatorial struggle for power more compellingly repellent.

Maybe it’s a flaw in Irish theatre that it’s not very good at reaching out beyond itself, into territory that lies outside of Irish experience. But in the case of Williams it doesn’t really have to.