Trust the writing, not the writer. Tennessee Williams’s evocation of memory and yearning long ago acquired classic status by virtue of its exquisitely controlled theatrical expressionism. The published text features pages of Williams’ production demands but that doesn’t mean his every idea need be doggedly played out at face value. A great novel can be savored slowly, but perform a great play too reverently and the drama dies. That’s the fate that intermittently befalls Rupert Goold’s overly earnest production.
Cleaving to Williams’ observation that Tom (Ed Stoppard) is a poet, Goold uses every possible design element to augment the poetry, starting with the set.
Matthew Wright’s non-realistic apartment exists in a circle circumnavigated by a rusty metal walkway that rises way up into the flies. It’s further delineated by another circle of individual light beams pointed vertically downwards and a surrounding blue cyclorama dotted with industrial-style shapes.
Sadly, it’s the sort of design that looks handsome but causes problems. A false proscenium arch separates the upstage dining-room from the downstage sitting area replete with a sofa, Laura’s beloved Victrola and her glass collection. But unless the actors are downstage, they feel troublingly distant in one of the smallest West End houses.
The script’s countless music and sound cues are amply served by Adam Cork’s lushly amplified score of predominantly cascading strings and plucked harp (think Danny Elfman minus wailing choruses) but, despite the power of the writing, there are times when the cues dwarf the action.
The moodiness is further emphasized by Paul Pyant’s lighting. The prevailing tone for the interior scenes is suitably memory-drenched, like that of a faded, hand-tinted photograph, but often levels grow so dim it becomes hard to see the actors.
It isn’t just the designers who fall into the poetic trap. In her return to the role of Amanda, which she first essayed on Broadway in 2004, Jessica Lange is overly, well, languorous. Topped off with what, from photographs, looks like the exact same wig she wore on Broadway, she dwells unnaturally on the Southern drawl, slowing down every line with querulous phrasing and self-regard.
With sadly little of her performance played out front, it’s as if Lange is doing everything in cinematic close-up. She constantly provides detailed character hints and holds pauses in order to strengthen a reaction shot, but she doesn’t drive scenes. The only point at which she really becomes animated is with the arrival of “the gentleman caller” where, in a dress that would have looked dated in “Gone With the Wind,” she almost crosses the border between coquette and vamp. The effect is undeniably amusing but it flirts dangerously with overstatement.
In a production that runs at least 15 minutes longer than most, the only slow scene that really takes wing is the superbly played meeting between Laura and Jim.
Fresh out of drama school, Amanda Hale has real poise and directness as a Laura less crippled than usual. As Mark Umbers’ superbly relaxed, guileless Jim observes, her demons are more in her imagination than reality. The growing tenderness between the pair is spellbinding, with Laura visibly unfreezing in the glow of his enquiries. With a physical grace and smiling self-possession, Umbers is utterly plausible as a former college-boy-most-likely-to. Staging and pacing problems melt away in the dramatic force of their confrontation.
As troubled Tom, Stoppard is all end-of-his-tether angst. In this heterosexual interpretation of Williams’ most fiercely autobiographical play, there is no suggestion from Stoppard as to exactly why Tom is losing himself in the movies, why he retains an admiring friendship with innocently beautiful Jim, or why Jim’s departure signals his own disappearance. In this vision of angry young manhood, if Tom is destined to become a writer, he’ll be more Hemingway than Williams.
Even in the closing speech, director Goold mistakes poetry for motion. He allows individual lines of Stoppard’s closing narrative to be beleagured by pauses lasting up to 10 seconds, which kill rather than build tension. Trite as it sounds, the production would be stronger and more engaging if almost everyone simply acted faster.