It is my suggestion to you that you must watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Royal Exchange in Manchester as a wormhole to universal epiphany. I say this especially for people that have no intention of going whatsoever.
Theatre can be an alienating place and often the very notion of going there separates us out from each other. According to many a definition, even admitting to going into one marks you out as middle class and part of some other group, an aspirational badge of honour. Theatre did not feature in any formative years for me, except a school visit to Bolton Octagon that I was never to enter as we ended up getting punished for coach bound misdemeanours and had to sit writing lines on separate aisles of the bus, with an angry teacher and no Merchant of Venice in sight.
For sure, me and my siblings had heard many times of dad going to see Shirley Bassey at a theatre in London the day his National Service finished. That was it, an historical paternal tale of magic and light, smoke and sultry genius that could only happen once. He saw it, and we missed it.
Theatre, and particularly performances as powerful as this, are too important to leave out and allow to float by.
I feel a zealot but need to say that theatre need not be class-bound and sticking with that notion of not belonging is dangerous, even when totally understandable. There is nothing on earth like the theatre for experiencing something innate amongst us and that is not defined by class, that cannot be the preserve of the few. Yes, it can feel intimidating. I have been going to the Royal Exchange for over a decade and still feel more nervous in the waiting around downstairs than in any other form of night out (NB I did get free tickets in the Burnley end to watch my team Wigan play a few weeks ago, that was terrifying, but also quite unusual circumstances).
I was watching this Tennessee Williams' play the same night that a gala performance at the Oldham Coliseum was held as the last ever performance at that venue, after 125 years. We have to fight for these places and the fight is one of participation and appreciation, of knowing what absolute power these places hold. I still feel I probably do not belong here, but I no longer care. I know that if I do not come, if you do not come, then it is a purpose-free venue anyway.
This performance knocked me about a bit, it caught me in the ribs and a few times on the jaw, it is raw like a scrap in the backs with your brother. That familiar and inevitable realisation of the tensions that exist in being alive and staying that way. These folks are not like me, they own plantations, they are savaged by their experiences of great wealth and power, of glory from capital and business, football stardom, legal partners, success, and succession. Maggie (Ntombizodwa Ndlovu) is the only one to speak of poverty and I knew her pain and felt her justification of clinging to unhappiness rather than look back at that lingering ogre. And what pain, the indignity of wealth and the clamour for it, the key word of this whole play – Mendacity.
The thuggery of the gentile, the hidden and the unscrupulous. The complexity of it as we realise we all have a part in these themes, not as the good one that we work to convince ourselves, but also the bad one, the horrible as fuck one. We are all of them. That is the innateness, and we need these places to let us see that. To feel it.
The largely black cast means other themes thunder across our spirits and brains, themes that are part of the play and not. Like us sat in there, in this metal gridded coliseum, sat in this gigantic hall, in this crazy city that seems to grow another 150 feet taller every time you visit it. We are not experiencing the same things but we are perhaps all part of the same experiences of each other.
We are not allowed to ignore the webs in which we all play apart in weaving. Of this Exchange, of cotton, of Manchester as cottonopolis, of slavery, exploitation, brutal and long-lasting. We sit in it and we watch ourselves, rethink ourselves. It is best not to hate ourselves, we are none of us free of it; nor can we simply love ourselves as we see that there is too much left undone for conceit.
I had been to an open invitation to see the plans for the renovation of the decrepit Cotton Exchange in Blackburn earlier in the week, exciting it was too. After considering this play, reading the words of Roy Alexander Weise (Director), feeling the whiplash of themes that remind us of complicity, mendacity, that we are all products of brutality – after all of that, I wondered again about where that history would be made tangible in municipal restoration. We do ignore it, we close ourselves to our own collective horror. Like Reverend Tooker (Bruce McGregor), too often there for the promise of an earner, but buggering off when the shit gets real. The shit, in this case, of death, of secrets, of greed and that word again, mendacity.
It is part of this open invitation to make time to see this play that I do recognise that I am not talking about simple entertainment. Not that this is without a lot of humour, deep and cutting laughs that make us feel the irreverence of laughter as a response to darkness. It is packed with those things that make me marvel, not just in the performances on stage. The lighting (Lizzie Powell) is so brilliant that we are not always aware of our enclosure in the metal cage, we see too the visions of those multiple acres of plantation being electrified by lightning, of closeness and then wildness, of spoilt children dancing in the same bedroom space that becomes a kind of séance, then a tight chamber of revelation. All of this accompanied by sounds integrated so perfectly (Alexander Faye Braithwaite/ Toyo Akinbode) that we feel them rather than notice them, we must have heard them but it is the sensations that wash around us and make us one.
But no, it is not all about entertainment. There is a scene, of Big Daddy (Patrick Robinson) and Brick (Bayo Gbadamosi), in that same bedroom, that very same unchanged stage, where every word was wired to me like miniature Tasers, of revelation and clumsy collapsing together of contrasting masculinity. This scene, written in 1955, but acted here so intensely, was not like a play at all, I was in those backs again, scrapping and losing, trying to see what was happening beyond the clouds of who others think we should be.
This is not the Greatest Showman, not Mama Mia. This is a coliseum where we breathe the same air as those people down below, we can taste the vaped cigar smoke of Big Daddy and have it sting our eyes a little. This is real and not real at the very same moment, these people are lifting a veil a little so that we can see ourselves and know we see that so clearly, more vividly than we can see ourselves.
Fuck me, it is powerful. It is not entertainment alone because honestly, you can come here and it takes courage to do that, to be at once in yourself and never further from that internal sense of me. In a world that is already terrified of the consequences of Artificial Intelligence, of disembodied consciousness, we leave here knowing there is something around humanity we do not even know ourselves. We can maybe never know, but we can spend a few hours every now and then, lifting a veil to ourselves and seeing what dances about in those dark shadows. This is a reason for you to come here. I am not on commission, I get the cheapest seats because it’s what I can afford, I buy tea and baulk at the prices of cake cut by a bacon slicer.
This is not about status, and do not be overawed, you do belong in here, just get to your seat, close your eyes and wait for it to start.
I have seen Tennessee Williams' plays in here before, and I love the accent, the southern drawl that is as unfamiliar in my world as any other but does seem to host something like my Northern voice. Not sure what it is, but they do it brilliantly here, it is otherworldly, maybe because it is that same contradictory sound, of defeated armies and lost empires, of brutal exploitation and the grand decaying of cotton wealth, of fragility. It is all of it, all of us, a sound that somehow makes things more human. You cannot talk power without accents, accent is place, our identity that we share and that we are divided by each other through. If this had been received pronunciation, I would not have been so involved. Accent takes craft and time to perfect, to bring to life so it lifts us (and drops us) to the places these brilliant performances took us, that is lived and reflective of place.
Accent and voice that is cared for, respected, and avoids the hideous contorted Radio 4 versions of Northern voices the Oxbridge comedians crew like to mock. The work and craft of this voiced dimension (Natalie Grady) is crucial and it also reminds me the significance of accent and the right to speak my place wherever I go. I was grasped by the lyrical poetry of Brick’s quip, ‘Mendacity, it is the system we live in, there is only two ways out, Death…or liquor’. Too bloody right, like LinkedIn! The bullshit of pretend selves and curated professionalism that strips us bare and leaves desperation as the only end. I have tried that phrase a dozen times, trying to get that accented perfection, and ended up sounding like Foghorn Leghorn or Buck A Roo off Benidorm. The craft of those performances is so entrancing we can feel like we were part of that world rather than just an audience. My tortured efforts since remind me how incredibly difficult that is.
This play is transformative, the theatre transforms. Once, giddy and exalted by another Tennessee Williams' Play, A Streetcar Named Desire, I came out of the cocooned stage to find Blanche Dubois sat in the public area. It was Maxine Peake, someone I have so much admiration for and would ordinarily freeze at the sight of, but now felt theatre intoxication rushing through my veins. I approached and said how brilliant that was and how I kept thinking throughout we should have a Northern version of Williams' plays, one in our accents. My wild eyed meanderings did not faze this genius and I was invited to sit a while, talk my euphoria out, with kindness, being heard despite the randomness of my being this stranger so untrained in any of the arts. I remember that night, of my partner desperately trying to catch my eye, with ‘what the fuck are you doing’ eyes. Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof did to me, I became someone else, someone differently attuned to the world in which I find myself and, so empowered by the play, that I could do that; Just talk to an actor that had blown me away and rearranged my atoms and made me fearless for a few short hours. I also realised now that we cannot transpose our own accents onto another, we must write our own words for our own voices.
Williams and this performance simultaneously depicts how crucial place is, how voiced and accented place is, and how through using those well we can find some glimpses of the innateness of human experience. Honestly, you will pity the displaced Received Pronunciation speakers by the time you come out. Things change, elation can be anticipated.
That exuberance, that clarity, that changed atomic sense of self is why you should go and see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The director is working class, for me that matters, but I did not know that until afterwards. It is exciting to see that, to maybe let the ones that lift veils help us see differently, and to know that people from backgrounds more like ours are doing that. I did not know what I was missing sat on that bus writing ‘I must be a civilised person when on trips with school’ several hundred times. I knew I was no less civilised, but I want to encourage you to get yourself to the theatre and maybe become a little different, a little more aware of what it is to be human than we often get chance to see.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a Royal Exchange Theatre Production - and runs until 29 April. For info and tickets: CLICK HERE
Images: Helen Murray