'The Night of the Iguana': Creatures of impulse

Paul Taylor meets three actresses seduced by the passion of Tennessee Williams's storytelling, as 'The Night of the Iguana' returns to the West End
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When Tennessee Williams's play The Night of the Iguana was filmed with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, the posters smoulderingly summarised it as the story of "One Man. Three Women. One Night." But it's a somewhat less raunchy case of "One Man. Three Women. One Lunchtime," when I arrive to meet the trio of leading ladies - Clare Higgins, Jenny Seagrove and Nichola McAuliffe - who are in rehearsal for Anthony Page's West End revival, which starts previewing tonight at the Lyric Theatre.

The dramatist's last Broadway success and a summation of his earlier work, this 1961 piece is set on the tropical verandah of a Bohemian hilltop hotel by the sea in Mexico. Shannon (played in the new production by Woody Harrelson) is a former Episcopalian minister, defrocked for blasphemy and a taste for underage girls.

Now working as tour guide and on the verge of one of his many crack-ups, he brings to this run-down and raffishly inappropriate joint a party of Baptist women schoolteachers. Clare Higgins takes the role of Maxine, the lusty, newly widowed proprietor who has her sights set on Shannon as a replacement partner. Jenny Seagrove is Hannah Jelkes, a New England spinster and itinerant artist who is the play's embodiment of "how to live beyond despair and still live". The long, mutually confessional conversation she has with the ex-cleric is like the spiritual equivalent of a one-night stand. And Nichola McAuliffe plays Miss Fellowes, the affronted Baptist lady whose success in getting Shannon fired drives him berserk, with the result that he has to be tied up like the eponymous iguana.

The actresses were in excellent spirits at our meeting. They've been assigned dressing-rooms on the same floor - "So I've suggested," says McAuliffe, "that I'll put the cauldron outside and we'll just drop stuff in it as we go past."

"I'll bring the cauldron. I've got a spare one," chips back Higgins, who has emerged from the extra- ordinary experience of rehearsing Tennessee Williams by day, while playing Linda Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman by night.

It wasn't only the clash of identities that was tricky ("There was Linda serving, serving, serving. And then there's Maxine who is 'Give me another rum-coco, or I'll punch your lights out.' That was fun"). Two-timing (so to speak) America's greatest post-war dramatists has also brought home to her just how different they are: "Miller is much cooler and more political, and I'm not denying the fact that every evening people would stand up in floods of tears.

"Williams doesn't have politics, he just has feelings and these archetypes crawling round the stage and this mad, black humour and crazed energy that only someone who has had many, many nervous breakdowns would be familiar with."

Higgins won an Olivier Award for her portrayal of Alexandra del Lago, the washed up movie-star in Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth. Are there any continuities between the characters? "Oh, Maxine is her older sister," laughs Higgins. "She's the reason why Alexandra finally fled." We muse on the irony that Arthur Miller, a good friend of the actress, married someone who was a real-life Tennessee Williams character in the shape of the defenceless, self-destructive Marilyn Monroe.

After the notorious debacle of Murderous Instincts, last year's ill-fated "salsa-comedy-murder-mystery", it's a wonder, I suggest, that Nichola McAuliffe can bear to enter Latin-American territory again so soon. "There you are, you see. She hasn't worked out that unconscious pattern," declares Higgins.

McAuliffe laughingly recalls how, during one of her numbers on the opening night of Instincts, she caught sight of a critic's head shaking in disbelief. "It was an involuntary and visceral reaction. It said, 'This is the worst thing I've ever seen.' It said, 'Don't involve me in it under any circumstances. And what's a nice girl like you doing in a pile of shit like this?' It was the funniest thing."

McAuliffe, though, is a Tennessee Williams buff, having played Maria St Just, his great friend and literary executor, in Five O'Clock Angel, a play that drew links between the life and the work. So she's particularly alert to what is coded and autobiographical in The Night of the Iguana. "The relationship between Hannah [the New England spinster] and Shannon - to me, and this may just be in my mind - is a conversation between an older, repressed and disappointed homosexual [Shannon] who's only had two glancing experiences and a non-gay who is fascinated, although nothing can come of it on either side."

The play is an extraordinary piece of personal allegory. Shannon is paranoid, self-dramatising, neurotically driven to showing people the sordid underside of things. Hannah is calm, virtually unshockable and all-forgiving.

"They represents the two sides of Tennessee Williams - what he was and what he would like to have been," says Jenny Seagrove, who for her portrayal has taken inspiration from someone she knows - "a woman older than Hannah who, out of duty to her family, was never allowed to spread her wings and meet the right man. Very controlled, very formal, very polite."

She also went on a research trip to Nantucket, which she discovered to be very small and an extremely cold and bleak place in the winter. This jaunt certainly illuminated one of the exchanges in the play, where Shannon jibes that "Nantucket spinsters have their wry humour, don't they?" and Hannah drily responds with "Yes, they do. They have to." Williams intended the character of Hannah "almost as a definition of what I think is most spiritually beautiful in a person and still believable".

How does he achieve the credibility as well as the luminosity? Seagrove points out that Hannah can be viewed as an elevated form of hustler. Living hand-to-mouth, doing quick sketches for tourists, "she has had to observe people very carefully to work out what she can give them".

Shannon, too, has elements of the con-man, masquerading as a minister of the church. McAuliffe believes that "this pair seem to split Blanche Dubois between them".

The autobiographical dimension again becomes apparent - for, if you combine Shannon's determination to touch people with the dark realities that they prefer to shun and Hannah's clear-eyed unjudgemental manner of drawing, what you arrive at are the conditions of Tennessee Williams's own art.

For Clare Higgins, there's a straight line from this dramatist, with his sympathy for the wandering and the wounded, to the Beat writers and hippies: "It's what Kerouac talks about - there's only one kind, the ones who get on the road, who blaze with life, make mistakes, who have open hearts and open souls."

And his antecedents? With the current series of TV Shakespeare adaptations in mind, I ask the actresses which of the Bard's works Williams would have been temperamentally best suited to update. We agree on Antony and Cleopatra.

"There's that self-dramatisation," says Higgins, "that inexorable pull towards the Egyptian state of mind. You should be in Rome, but you've just got to go once more to Egypt, even though you know you're going to die there. And there's the lushness and the poetry."

What is Woody Harrelson bringing to the part of Shannon? "His heart and soul" - plus a true Texan accent and a courteous way of correcting their own mispronunciations of words such as "Houston". The women seem to be enjoying themselves. Nichola McAuliffe is putting up a sign by their dressing rooms that says "The Floor of the Witches" in Spanish.

Given the talent in this production, the answer to the question, "When shall we three meet again?" looks set to be, every night for the foreseeable future.

'The Night of the Iguana', Lyric Theatre, London W1 (0870 890 1107) to 25 March