Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Novello Theatre, London
Thursday 03 December 2009
To see a black cat cross your path is a proverbial sign of good luck. The all-black production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1955 Tennessee Williams's classic, certainly had good luck in spades on Broadway. It was a box-office smash, grossing more than $14m (£8.4m) in its limited 20-week run and its audiences included many African-Americans who were going to the theatre for the first time.
Debbie Allen's West End production features James Earl Jones still in stunning form as Big Daddy, but recast in many key roles. Did it prove that there is a creative coherence as well as a commercial canniness to the reverse-race concept? The answer is warmly affirmative. My thought beforehand was that it would not only be encouraging for black punters but salutary for white ones, too, to have the experience that black people have most of the time – that is, of seeing people of another colour monopolising a theatrical highlight.
The producers have argued that, as far interpretation goes, the casting is neutral. Certainly Williams's drama is not like Othello, which turns on the issue of racial difference, and was once mounted by Jude Kelly in a colour-reversed production in Washington, with Patrick Stewart's hero as the lone white in an all-black society. Nor is the play a cheerful piece of apolitical fluff like Hello, Dolly!, which famously ran with a cast of African-American performers and starring Pearl Bailey. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which is located in the Deep South, the strong racial assumptions are implicit. Big Daddy is the redneck owner of a prime 28,000-acre plantation. To make this plausible, the proceedings have been fairly unobtrusively shifted to the 1980s here, with the patriarch described as a former "Mississippi field hand".
What is remarkable, though, about Allen's compelling, sensitive and acerbically comic production is how swiftly you become so absorbed by the universal elements in the story that you almost completely forget about the counter-intuitive colour of the actors' skins. I can imagine a production in which black actors ironically appropriated the drama in the way that gay troupes have subversively colonised the same author's A Streetcar Named Desire. But this version of Cat is all the more powerful for being, within its altered terms, played straight.
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