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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Night Of The Iguana
Noel Coward Theatre    Summer 2019

One of Tennessee Williams's less-often revived plays, but for my money one of his best, The Night Of The Iguana explores some of the playwright's signature concerns with what might be surprising delicacy and quiet hope.

Like most of Williams's plays, it is ultimately about the question of whether the fragile and sensitive can survive in a harsh world, but this time his answer is Yes, and he offers guidance on how.

The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, all but defrocked and reduced to running third-rate guided tours of Mexico, arrives at the hotel of an old friend for one of his regularly scheduled nervous breakdowns.

The old friend has died, but his lusty widow Maxine offers Shannon the option of taking his place, a choice he rejects as being beneath him. But an encounter with travelling New England spinster Hannah teaches him that nothing that helps you function and survive should be rejected out of false pride.

The same playwright who wrote in Orpheus Descending 'We are all of us sentenced to a life of solitary confinements in our own skins.' can here let Hannah say 'We all wind up with something or with someone, and if it's someone and not just something we're lucky, perhaps unusually lucky.'

The play is structured to lead up to the almost Shavian discussion between Shannon and Hannah, an extended scene that contains some of Williams's most movingly poetic dialogue.

In this new production director James MacDonald sensitively keeps the focus where it belongs, on Shannon's desperation, Maxine's less obvious but just as real loneliness and Hannah's quiet strength.

Clive Owen shows Shannon almost literally bouncing off the walls with uncontrollable frantic energy clearly generated by pain and panic. Anna Gunn could afford to be earthier and sexier, to clarify the contrast between her and the almost sexless Hannah though, to be fair, the role is underwritten as Williams is obviously more interested in the spinster.

Hannah is the plum role in the play, and Lia Williams grabs it and doesn't let go. Her Hannah is a little younger and less dessicated than other actresses have played the woman, a Blanche DuBois with unexpected and necessary-to-explore strength.

The playwright gives her a dry humour, which the actress makes the most of, her understated zingers repeatedly cutting through Shannon's sometimes self-indulgent histrionics.

At the same time, Lia Williams lets us see that Hannah is as fragile at the core as the others, and appreciate the effort and determination it takes for her to carry on. Speaking of the demons she shares with Shannon, Hannah says 'Endurance is something that spooks and blue devils respect.'

It requires no spoiler alert to say that at the end it will be Hannah who carries on alone, and Lia Williams makes us see that she will, but also how much it will cost her.

The play is not perfect. The role of Maxine is, as I said, woefully underwritten, as is Hannah's grandfather, a dying poet struggling to complete his final poem (a lovely one, about the need for courage). Both characters deserved fuller development.

Things are a little too obviously structured just to get Shannon and Hannah together for the discussion scene, and all the minor characters are there just to give the impression that something is going on while the play is waiting for the big encounter.

But that big scene, and much of what leads up to it, ranks with the best of Tennessee Williams, which is to say with the best of American drama, and indeed twentieth-century drama anywhere.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Night Of The Iguana - Noel Coward Theatre 2019
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