Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Reheating the tin roof for the 21st century

Zoe Boyle and Jamie Parker, and below, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 movie version
Zoe Boyle and Jamie Parker, and below, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 movie version
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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was an epic play hijacked by Hollywood. Rod McPhee meets the two actors wrestling the classic back onto a stage.

WHEN this Pulitzer prize-winning play of 1955 was hurriedly made into a film, expectations were understandably high.

Not least because shifting the Tennessee Williams masterpiece from stage to silver screen also saw the involvement of two other big names, the top-billing actors Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.

Although it’s become something of a movie classic, probably due to having Hollywood royalty in the lead roles of Brick and Maggie, neither Williams nor Newman were happy about how it turned out.

But tomorrow West Yorkshire Playhouse unveils a new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which aims to put right all the wrongs of the 1958 movie.

“In the film the story was completely de-clawed and sterilised,” says Jamie Parker, who plays Brick. “Williams’s main beef with the finished product was that it reached trite conclusions. It makes it all about one man’s psychological problems but at the same time it leaves you with so many gaps to fill in.”

The story pivots around Brick, an ex-football player from a rich family in the deep south of America. That family are in the grip of a crisis as his father, cotton tycoon Big Daddy, learns he’s dying of cancer. This sees his wife, Maggie, sparked into action (like a cat on a hot tin roof) to prevent their substantial Mississippi Delta estate going into the hands of Brick’s brother, Grooper.

Unfortunately hard-drinking Brick is too consumed by a sense of disgust surrounding his relationship with Striker, one of his football peers who committed suicide.

That is linked to the fact that the relationship had strong gay undertones, but you’d never know if you saw the movie version since it omitted most references to the precise relationship between the two men.

Zoe Boyle, who plays Maggie the “cat”, says: “The movie was made in a time when homosexuality was so taboo, so it’s not something that could be said. Instead, it’s implied. But, almost the more it’s hinted at, but not said, the more pregnant it is. It adds to the tension.”

Jamie adds: “But Brick’s sexuality is talked about much more strongly in this version of the play. Yes, it was previously danced around a lot inevitably because of the restrictions on when he wrote it.”

Fortunately, this production sees director Sarah Esdaile use the amended 1974 version which, given the more liberal age it was written in, allowed Williams to be much more explicit with the language and themes.

But even then, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was never about a closeted man battling against a glamorous beard of a wife. It is a bold chronicle of a family in crisis. Brick’s specific trauma is just the starting point, and, unlike the film, there’s no neat ending.

Esdaile remains faithful to these core essentials in Williams’s play and her meticulous methods of direction are proof of her desire to nail the spirit of the original.

“What’s amazing about Sarah,” says Zoe, “is that Arthur Miller and Williams are her two favourite playwrights and she knows them inside out and she really is so passionate about it.”

Jamie says: “It makes it harder work, but it’s great 
to work with a director 
who has a niche. With 
classics you sometimes end up doing a production of ‘Who cares?’ by ‘What the hell!’ you know? But not in this case.”

Both actors have a certain amount of experience of classics too. Jamie, 33, saw his profile soar back in 2004 when he took on the role of Scripps in both the stage and movie version of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Since then he’s starred in TV dramas including Silk and Parade’s End, Hollywood movies like Valkyrie (alongside Tom Cruise, no less) and, most recently, tackling the lead in Henry V at The Globe in London.

Zoe’s ascent has been shorter but even faster. Over the past four years she’s featured in numerous TV drama’s ranging from Poirot and Lewis to Grey’s Anatomy and Downton Abbey, as Lavinia Swire.

Yet despite boasting pretty impressive CVs neither are going to attempt to emulate the movie stars whose shoes they’re forced to fill.

Zoe says: “Everyone’s been asking me: ‘Oh, are you playing Elizabeth Taylor?’ and I’m like: ‘No!’ Actually I couldn’t watch the movie for more than five minutes because I didn’t want it in my head in any way. Besides, I’m never going to be Elizabeth Taylor.”

And that’s echoed even more strongly by Jamie, who reveres both Newman, the movie and the part of Brick, which he lists as a role which he’s waited years to play.

“There’s no point in me trying to compete with what’s gone before. Besides they were 1950s performances by 1950s actors – today’s a different matter.” he says

“Anyway, I couldn’t compete and there’s no point in pretending: I’m no Paul Newman and I’m never 
going to be. Who ever could be?”

A classic long in the making

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not only one of Tennessee Williams’s best known works but also one of his personal favourites.

The play premiered on March 24, 1955 with the lead roles of Maggie and Brick played by Barbara Bel Geddes (later Miss Ellie in US TV soap Dallas) and the lower profile Ben Gazzara.

On its UK debut, the 1958 movie version was regarded as so racy that it was denied a public licence by censors.

Sarah Esdaile’s new production runs from tomorrow to October 27 at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds. Tel 0113 2137700