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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at National Theatre( Olivier), London

By Edwin Wilson

  Zoe Wannamaker

Any production of an American play at the National Theatre is likely to be a double-edged sword: there will be aspects that clearly surpass most U. S. productions; on the other hand, there may also be shortcomings inherent in any British attempt to be American. The new version of The Rose Tattoo at the National is no exception.

The play is something of an anomaly in the works of Tennessee Williams - a full-blown and exuberantly life-affirming comedy. Sarafina, a fiery Sicilian living along the Gulf Coast of the U. S. is wild about her truck-driving husband, and not only is convinced that he feels the same way about her, but that he is totally faithful to her. In the first few moments of the play, the husband is killed by an underworld gang for whom he worked; reacting to this, Serafina also loses the unborn child she is carrying. Left with a daughter entering her teen-age years, Serafina is disconsolate.

After a three year period of despondency, during which she dresses in nothing but a disheveled slip, two things happen: she discovers that her husband had in fact been unfaithful to her, and a burly young truck driver, with the body of her husband but a less appealing face, suddenly enters her life. After much sparring, these two lonely but sexually avaricious souls, find that they were made for each other.

The play would profit from some astute editing. A scene in Act One, where two caricatured Southern women mock Serafina, goes on much too long. And in the second act, several scenes between the daughter and a young sailor with whom she falls in love could be trimmed. Nevertheless the play has great appeal: it is not only a refreshing, earthy drama, Serafina is Williams' most memorable portrait of a woman with irrepressible verve and vitality.

As for the production, the National as usual has pulled out all the stops, even including a live goat that symbolically crosses the stage several times. Mark Thompson has designed a skeletal wood-frame house that revolves on a turntable set against a background of sky that changes with the time of day, and Peter Mumford has lit the set with effects that range from dark and moody to days drenched in sunlight. Another asset is the evocative incidental music composed by Jason Carr; played live by a quintet, it beautifully underscores transitions and provides background for the play.

Also on the plus side is the superb performance of Zoe Wannamaker as Serafina. Frequently turning on a dime from angry, self-pitying martyr, to avenging angel, to voracious sexual partner, she brings tremendous energy, understanding, and subtlety to the lead character.

On the less positive side, are the actors' Southern accents, which are all over the map, sometimes syrupy and overdone to the point of caricature, sometimes dropped altogether, sometimes simply missing the music of Southern speech. Unfortunately one of the chief offenders in this regard is Susannah Fielding in the role of Rosa, Serafina's teen age daughter. Actually, Fielding is probably not to blame, but rather those who cast her. She is making her professional debut and is in way over her head in the part, which calls for combing an appealing innocence with a fervent sexual awakening: not an easy combination for any young actress.

A sad footnote: Steven Pimlott, the original director, died just after rehearsals began. The work was completed by his long time friend and colleague, Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director of the National. The joint effort was successful. Their work, together with the mise en scène, the music, Ms. Wannamaker and most of her supporting actors make for a joyful occasion.


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