Paul T Davies reviews Tennessee William’s The Night Of The Iguana starring Clive Owen now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre.
Based, in part, on his real-life experiences in the summer of 1940, Tennessee William’s play is a bit of a curate’s egg. Carved into a mountain in Mexico, the Costa Verde Hotel is a perfect site for William’s brand of misfit characters, washing up on the verge of spiritual change, and historical change for the world. On this hilltop paradise arrives Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked priest turned tour guide, battling his spooks of alcohol and desire for young girls. He is on the verge of a second nervous breakdown, down below a busload of unhappy ladies from a Texas women’s college, “a football squad of old maids”, complain loudly about the tour, including his seduction of the youngest member of their group. The hotel’s owner, Fred, has died and his widow, Maxine, with her freedom, has been seducing local youths and now has Shannon in her sights. Among this chaos arrives Hannah Jelkes, “a Gothic cathedral image of a medieval saint, but animated”, and her frail Grandfather, attempting to finish his (final) poem.
The play and production give ample opportunity for some mighty fine acting. As Shannon, Clive Owen captures the tortured soul very well, a convincing portrait of a man fighting his demons, his “spooks”, his Black Dog, although I felt he was little underpowered in the first half. Anna Gunn is a sexy, needy Maxine, knowing Shannon of old, cruelly manipulative in her threats of getting him slammed into the local asylum again. The star of the show, however, is another superb performance by Lia Williams as Hannah Jelkes, a grifter, a drifter, no saint, but with overwhelming powers of foresight and vision, understanding exactly the situation she is in, and the chaos around her. Her stillness and authority are gripping and magnificent. Julian Glover as her grandfather gives a master class in patience and timing, his final poem beautifully played. In a cast of fine female characters, Finty Williams is a joy as Judith Fellowes, the furious matriarch of the ladies group. Occasionally events are interrupted by a Nazi family, (whom Williams witnessed in real life), loudly celebrating London in flames, led by German perfection in Timothy Blore’s athletic Wolfgang- an impressive West End debut.
Yet, the play, I felt, began to serve the characters less well as the three hours progressed. At times, James MacDonald’s production could have relished the melodramatic aspects more, and the second half becomes an extended duologue between Hannah and Shannon, interesting to watch but not fully engaging, the play doesn’t build up to a climax as such. In an age of reinvention, this is a respectful, traditional production that fails to solve the problem that, like the symbolic iguana, the play becomes tied up in its overwrought philosophy. The central image, of an iguana tied up and tortured by the locals before being killed for food, is a clumsy one that Williams overworks- until the iguana is released, the spirituality and future of the characters cannot be released, and the results are as expected. But see it for fine performances, and outstanding sound design by Max Pappenheim that brings to life the echoes, thunderstorms and offstage events that populate William’s stage directions.