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Q&A: Director Kip Williams talks Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Date posted: 18 Apr 2019Author: STC Production: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Find out what to expect from STC's upcoming production of the evergreen American classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as director Kip Williams introduces the cast and provides a peek into the lively rehearsal room. 

Then dive deeper in a written interview below, as Kip dissects the fascinating complexities of the Pollitt family, and the lasting genius of Tennessee Williams.



What kind of family is the Pollitt family, the central characters of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

The Pollitt family is headed up by Big Daddy, played by Hugo Weaving, an iconic, patriarchal figure, who owns the biggest cotton estate in the Mississippi Delta. They are an incredibly wealthy family, estimated to be worth around half a billion dollars not including land value, which amounts to twenty-eight thousand acres of the best land in Mississippi. However there is tension in the family, as Big Daddy has been sick for a number of years and a question hangs in the air as to who will take over when he’s gone.

Big Mama, played by Pamela Rabe, would be the natural inheritor to Big Daddy's estate, but his two sons are also potential heirs. Gooper (Josh McConville), the eldest son, is a lawyer, and has always had a very fractious relationship with his father. The younger son Brick (Harry Greenwood) is the complete opposite: a carbon copy of his father and an incredible sportsman, he is favoured by Big Daddy to inherit the estate. But Brick has found himself in a dark place, distancing himself from his family and from everybody in his world, and not engaging in this battle to be the ‘heir to the throne’. 


In what way do these characters face themselves, as well as each other?

Well I suppose all the characters in the play are resisting facing themselves. Rather than coming to terms with who they are, they project an idealised version of themselves onto another member of the family, and define themselves by these relationships. Big Daddy, for example, defines himself through his relationship with his son Brick: he sees Brick’s glorious reputation as his own way of becoming immortal. Big Mama defines herself in terms of her relationship to Big Daddy: his success, his place within society, is her success, and her place within society. So the characters are constantly in an act of defining themselves in relation to another person, and it’s a way in which they defer having to confront the things within themselves that they're uncomfortable with.

Part of what Williams exposes in this play is that often in life we all look to relationships to try and solve the things that we feel uncomfortable with within ourselves, rather than actually confronting those things. There’s this amazing moment in the play where the character Maggie, Brick’s wife, looks into the mirror and asks the question, "Who are you?" I found that an incredible and tragic question. Rather than saying, “Who am I?” she says, “Who are you?” She sees an image of herself as being other to her. It’s a question that all of the characters within the play are asking themselves on some level.
 

Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy


Cat is originally set in the 1950s in Mississippi, America's Deep South. You've stayed true to that geographically, but brought the family forward in time. Why have you made that decision?

When the play premiered in the 1950s in America, the audience would have seen themselves on stage. So whenever I come to stage a classic text I ask myself: what would the original experience have been for the audience seeing the premiere of this play? When the playwright originally conceived the work, did they want the audience to see themselves, or see a past version of themselves? And is there a way in which we can recreate that experience?

The design team, the cast and I did a lot of thinking about whether we were going to stay true to period or bring it up into the modern day, and we decided that we could find a version of this play that existed in contemporary times. The world is still in the Mississippi Delta, and a lot of the social tensions and power dynamics that inform the conflict of this drama still, unfortunately, exist today. Mississippi, for example, is a state where women are subjected to discrimination and oppression, where you can be fired based on your sexuality, and is widely documented to be overwhelmingly in opposition to same-sex marriage. It’s a deeply conservative place. Part of what Williams is looking at is patriarchal power structures and capitalist power structures, and contemporary Mississippi is still a very true expression of those ideas. 

Our design is essentially re-contextualising the play in modern times, but the idea is that this household is a relic of the past, a kind of museum that is trying to hold the younger generation back in the 1950s status quo. In addition to modern pieces there is furniture from the 70s, 60s and 50s and that's part of the tension – these younger generations trying to wrestle themselves away from these symbols of past social mores.


What do you know of Tennessee Williams' personal life during the development of Cat, and how that might have fed into his work?

When Tennessee Williams was writing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof he was at a crisis point in his life. He had had a number of great successes: A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, had been a huge critical, artistic and popular success, and won the Pullitzer Prize. And yet he found himself battling with alcoholism. Williams articulates it in a way whereby he found a split between himself: between the artistic, passionate, creative spirit within him who wanted to confront life's problems, ask difficult questions, and go to dark and confronting places to produce his art, and the side that wanted to protect himself from the pain of that, to numb himself from the difficulty and the heartache that he experienced throughout his life.

And you can see in this play the expression of those two forces in the essential characters of Maggie and Brick. Maggie, who is full of verve and passion, attempts to confront difficulties and find a way forward over huge hurdles, versus Brick, who is in a constant state of retreat, numbing himself with alcohol and trying to hide from everything in life. The delicate dance between those two forces in these characters is really an expression of Williams' conundrum – and a conundrum that we all face. Do we confront difficulty, or do we avoid it? And how do you reconcile those two forces in an individual? Williams expresses that very personal internal conflict in the form of a relationship. 
 

Zahra Newman and Harry Greenwood as Maggie and Brick


This isn’t your first time tackling the writing of Tennessee Williams, having previously directed Suddenly Last Summer for STC in 2015. What is it like directing Williams’ work as opposed to other playwrights?

It's a huge challenge to direct Tennessee Williams because he's a poet who is not interested in pinning things down. I've directed Arthur Miller before, who is in many ways the polar opposite of Williams, in that he presents a very clear moral framework within his plays. His intent, more often than not, is for the audience all to be thinking the same thing by the end of the play. Williams, on the other hand, is trying to problematize things. He does not offer easy answers, and creates a more complicated, almost paradoxical experience for his audience. Rather than uniting people, he wants you to have a very personal, individual experience when you encounter his work. So it's very challenging.

There's this amazing stage direction where Williams describes his intent in writing this play to be to “catch a group of human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis”. He wants to capture all of the nuanced complexity, the paradox of the multiple perspectives that exist when people collide in a common conundrum. His plays are never about a single perspective. He wants you to identify with one of the minor characters, perhaps, or with multiple characters who are wanting contradictory things. It makes it very hard to realise on stage, but it's a wonderful thing, because it's true to human existence. We do want more than one thing at any one time, and often those wants and desires contradict one another. Williams expresses a side of the human experience that is rarely seen in drama, complicating things in a way that is much truer to life. 


Why have you chosen the original version of the script, rather than the revised version that first premiered on Broadway?

The Broadway version was quite substantially rewritten, specifically the third act, at the request of Elia Kazan, the play’s director, and close friend and collaborator of Williams. Kazan felt the absence of Big Daddy in Act Three was a mistake, so Williams completely reconceived the final act for Broadway. The team and I think it was a mistake, and it has become fairly widely accepted that the original version is superior. When Big Daddy, at the end of Act Two, learns some crucial information, there is a symbolic end to his existence. His absence in Act Three not only reflects that symbolic end to his character, but, ironically, has him loom larger than he would were he to come back and try and contest that information in person. Despite his absence, his opinion plays out on the rest of the characters as they try to figure out what to do next. In the end it was a clear decision for us to do the original, and Williams’ preferred version of the story.
 

Zahra Newman

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 29 Apr – 8 Jun 2018, Rosyln Packer Theatre

Seeing the show? Pick up a souvenir play program from the Roslyn Packer Theatre foyer for $12, featuring in-depth articles, photographs and info about cast and creatives. You can pre-purchase program vouchers for $11 when booking your tickets. Season Ticket Holders can pre-purchase vouchers for $10 with their Season Ticket.

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