When it first premiered in the early sixties, Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana marked a departure from the sexual tension laden plays of the previous decade which brought him so much success. Instead focussing on the intricacies of real human relationships that we see the beginnings of in his first major work, The Glass Menagerie. James Macdonald’s production, now playing at The Noël Coward Theatre, reminds us of the breadth of Williams’ writing, and just how powerful it can really be.
We also see a move away from Williams’ traditional deep south setting, with the action taking place in a rundown hotel on a hill top in Mexico. Reverand T. Lawrence Shannon, who is on a holiday from God in more ways than one, and is now working as a tour guide, brings a group of lady travellers to the Costa Verde Hotel, expecting to see his old friend but instead finding his widow, Maxine.
The tour group are keen to get away from both the hotel and Shannon, he’s been accused of raping a sixteen-year-old girl in his party, and his abstinence from Liquor is driving him to a fever. The arrival of spinster, Hannah Jelkes and her Nonno completes the guest book, and the events all unfold as an Iguana, which is to be fattened up for eating, is tied up under the terrace.
The main thrust of the story happens between Shannon and Hannah. Maxine’s interest in Shannon appears to be lustful, as she adjusts to life without her husband. But the relationship between the disgraced minister and the penniless Miss Jelkes features little to no hint of romance. The pair are complete opposites, but at the same time the development of the bond between them is gripping to watch.
In The Night of the Iguana, Hannah, and to some extent Maxine, see Williams’ portrayal of women play out slightly differently. Their strength and independence come not from their desire for a man, but from within themselves, borne from a need to survive. Both Anna Gunn as Maxine and Lia Williams as Hannah portray these lost souls with candour and tenacity.
Clive Owen’s Shannon is a man who is both violent and vulnerable, quivering with a longing that is for more than just alcohol. The character is one that is impossible to like much less feel sympathy for, and yet Owen takes the audience on a journey which threatens to make the Reverend a man to be pitied if nothing else.
The remaining guests of the hotel are a group of German tourists, led in a confident portrayal by Timothy Blore as Wolfgang. In Williams’ original text they were Nazi’s, with the play set just before the outbreak of the second world war. That’s played down significantly here, and the group are seen as mere tormentors of their fellow guests.
Rae Smith’s set certainly looks the part, the cabins of the ramshackle hotel set against the harsh rocks of the Mexican hillside. The cabins allow us to see in to the rooms while the action takes place on the terrace, so Nonno (Julian Glover) can be seen composing his final poem as his granddaughter comforts Shannon as he goes in to a nervous breakdown.
Below the stage is also used to represent the bottom of the hill, so we often see characters descend downwards, calling back up in echoing shouts. Neil Austin’s lighting combined with a full-blown rainstorm makes for stunning staging, and sets the level of anticipation high.
With three acts to navigate, The Night of the Iguana manages to never lose momentum, instead James Macdonald paints a beautiful watercolour of opposing lifestyles. Williams has replaced the sexual tension with a far more compelling tension, one that encompasses all the uncertainties of life, and the fears that lost souls so often push deep down inside.