Truly great moments of theatre are rare. Even in the best of productions, there are very few of those instants of enthralled astonishment at the rightness of something. For myself, there haven’t been many more than five. One of them was an elemental cry of anguish by Sinéad Cusack playing Masha in the Royal Court’s 1990 production of Three Sisters, when the man she loves disappears forever, taking with him all hope and everything that matters to her. I have never heard anything like it. Another was in 1971 when Laurence Olivier played a drunk old Irish-American thespian in Long Day’s Journey into Night. He combined several accents at once and precariously teetered backwards on a table-edge on the tips of his toes for a tantalisingly long minute.
Another of these moments appeared unexpectedly last month in Really Old, Like Forty Five, an otherwise unremarkable new play at the Cottesloe. Playing a beautiful robot-nurse with angel-wings and stealing the show with her magically robotic movements, Michela Meazza, in a startling moment of unreal tenderness and fleshliness, darts out a long pink tongue to lick a sad old man in pyjamas. It was mesmerising. It is worth seeing this play for Meazza’s performance alone — virtuosity like this is unusual. She manages to be entirely convincing in every movement as a slightly clumsy machine, and both to horrify and to entertain as the pre-programmed comforter of the dying old folk in a sinister geriatric hospital. Her mechanical collapse when someone pulls out her wires is a tour de force and very funny.
Meazza is a dancer who has often worked with Matthew Bourne, the inspired choreographer of the famous all-male Swan Lake; like him she has a genius for translating acute physical observation into artistic significance. The movement director of this play, the choreographer Scarlett Mackmin, must take credit for Meazza’s performance too. I wish that leading directors exploited these physical skills much more than they do. It isn’t that they don’t at all: War Horse is one of many obvious counter-examples. It’s just that you see the use of this physicality much more consistently in fringe or minority theatre than in mainstream productions.
The rest of Really Old, Like Forty Five was disappointing. Its theme is very timely — what to do with a growing population of old and demented people and what might happen to them in a scary dystopia where they are seen as useless. There was some excellent observation: an aged auntie who smiles through every horror in the spirit of the Blitz and who cheerfully has her leg and finger cut off for stem-cell experiments in the death-hospital, because doctor knows best, is a perfect paradigm of unthinking acceptance of the unacceptable. At times, the play seemed to be drifting in the direction of Orton — laughter in the midst of cruelty and absurdity — but mostly it was pretty straight. A good cast and some funny lines couldn’t really save it from the curse of George Bernard Shaw — a tendency to heavy-handed and worthy reflection on the obvious.
No one could accuse Tennessee Williams of being heavy-handed, worthy or obvious. Yet I felt for the first time that his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not an entirely successful play. This all-black production, which had great success on Broadway last year and has now transferred to the Novello, left me feeling that the play, written in 1955, is not only too wordy but also rather dated. One of the main themes, the unrecognised and unacceptable homosexuality of the son of the house, no longer seems so powerful in a world where being gay is not hard to recognise or accept. The great gay secret at the centre of the play has lost the power that it had, for me at least, when I first saw it about 40 years ago.
That might not matter, perhaps. Themes don’t necessarily become dated — a similar one in A Streetcar Named Desire has not done so at all. I suspect that it is a mark of second-rate writing. This new production transposes the play from the 1950s to the 1980s, and from a rich, all-white plantation family to a rich, all-black plantation family, with a few skilful changes, but none of that seems to change anything very much about the play, for better or for worse. It is not entirely plausible that a black field-hand (in the new version) could have become an immensely rich Southern plantation owner in the 1980s. Within seconds of the curtain rising, the colour of the cast became, to me as a white person, not only irrelevant but unnoticeable.
I still wonder what the artistic purpose of the change could have been. If one were looking for a great play for an all-black cast, as was clearly the case here, I am not sure why one would choose Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
That aside, this production is well worth seeing, although, like the play, the cast was rather uneven. In the difficult first act, the highly-sexed young wife Maggie and her frustrating young husband Brick were not always emotionally convincing, despite their powerful presences. Their diction wasn’t always good either. But in the second act everyone came together in a tangle of family mendacity that was extremely moving. James Earl Jones as the vicious, selfish, bullying, tender father is not to be missed; those who weep at the theatre will do so at his performance. The scene towards the end in which this dreadful Big Daddy walks out towards oblivion with his much-abused Big Mama (not quite as Williams wrote it) is nearly another of those great moments of theatre.