Sweet Bird of Youth
By Tennessee Williams
Chichester Festival Theatre
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
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Tennessee Williams said at the outset of his career that his plays would be "a picture of my own heart" and this is why even the lesser ones survive. His work always displays a distinctive sympathy with the defeated and his poetic language channels deep emotions and deep longings that are universal. Premiered on Broadway in 1959 with the great Geraldine Paige and Paul Newman, it became an Oscar winning film but unlike 'Streetcar' or 'Glass Menagerie' it doesn't really stand the test of time. For today's audiences it's too slow and when the plot does kick in, it is of the overheated variety found in daytime soaps. In fact it kept reminding me of TVs Flamingo Road, which was obviously a copy.
And yet, at the same time, its themes feels curiously prescient. It lays bare small town viciousness, religious hypocrisy and political bosses who scoff at sexuality while being themselves engaged in sexual tawdriness of their own. Racism is to the fore.
The first act, the signature bedroom scene, is one of the best morning after the night before scenes ever written and Anthony Ward's lush designs perfectly evoke the light and heat of a Gulf Coast grand hotel.
We meet Chance (Brian J Smith) a handsome Romeo whose charms are now on the wane. His meal ticket is a has-been movie star Alexandra Del Lago (Marcia Gay Harden), fleeing a flop premiere, whom he hopes will take him on to Hollywood.
The plays strength is in the careful shading of these two great parts and here director Jonathan Kent has imported two great American actors who rise to the challenge.
Harden, who follows in the footsteps of Lauren Bacall in this role at Chichester, beautifully captures how the movie star flits between swagger (she commands him to make love to her) and the gnawing insecurity of an ageing actress whose sexual capital is waning. But she's also self-aware: "Even a dead racehorse is used to make glue" she quips.
Smith is perhaps too preppy and certainly too well toned for the part of a worn-out lothario but he succeeds in humanizing a quite unsympathetic character. In a fatal lapse into sentimentality, for a conman, he's brought her back to his hometown, partly so he can try to see his old childhood sweetheart, Heavenly, again. What complicates their visit is that Heavenly's father, a redneck politician named Boss Finley (Richard Cordery) who runs the town, has threatened Chance with castration if he comes anywhere near his daughter, whom he 'ruined'.
Chance rails against routine and discipline which the respectable world tries to impose and, ever the romantic, Williams sets up youthful sexual energy vs peevish prudery as a central theme.
Cordery shines as the bigoted, racist, hypocritical, speechifying politician, bringing the piece alive as soon as he appears and Emma Amos as his curvaceous mistress Miss Lucy is also perfect.
Musical theatre star Daniel Evans is now the artistic director at Chichester and his opening season is tantalizing, with an adaptation of Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls, Fiddler on the Roof starring comedian Omid Djalili and the triptych of The Norman Conquests among the treats to come.