Trapped in a gilded cage, Maggie the Cat and her husband Brick slink and stumble, snarl and slur. A huge, glistening bag of ice and four bottles of whisky stand, sweating condensation, in the middle of the floor. By the end of the play, nearly all the liquor will have been drunk, and chunks of ice and smashed glass will glitter on the dark carpet. In this Young Vic production, director Benedict Andrews gives Tennessee Williams’ 1955 classic a sheen of hard, tarnished luxury. The metallic walls of the set, by Magda Willi, have a dull, smeared gleam. The bed – site of so much misery, and such aching dissatisfaction – is stark, angular, black. There’s an open shower in full view, where Brick frequently stands, head hanging beneath the jets of water, seemingly craving obliteration, emerging without ever feeling cleansed. It is decor that looks at once expensive, uncompromisingly modern and perversely comfortless. And there is a hardness to Andrews’ entire reimagining, which has moments of cruel power, grotesque hilarity and desolate sadness, but, rather like Brick evading the embraces of the desperate Maggie, somehow always keeps its audience at emotional arms’ length.
It’s a ticket hotter than a summer’s day on the Mississippi Delta thanks to its casting. Leading the cast of this family drama, set on a plantation on the ailing patriarch Big Daddy’s 65th birthday, Sienna Miller is the feline Maggie, stifling in a sterile marriage to Jack O’Connell’s Brick, a depressive, alcoholic former football star. From the opening seconds of the play when he appears naked, streaming with water, this Brick is already blurry around the eyes. His movements are sluggish, anaesthetised. He seems battered by unhappiness and guilt, punch-drunk. The plaster cast on his foot from a drunken misadventure on the sports field the night before seems emblematic of his disgust with himself, and with his own body – a body that once made him an athletic success, that seduced Maggie and still holds her in thrall, and that attracted his friend Skipper, who committed suicide. O’Connell’s Southern accent is questionable, but he has a powerfully unsettling presence, his wooziness breaking out into violence that sees him hurling tumblers of booze and furiously pelting the walls with ice cubes.
Miller, meanwhile, brings silky wit as well as clawing frustration to her fine-boned Maggie. When she crawls on hands and knees towards her husband in a parodically pornified effort to arouse his interest, she’s both predatory and pleading. And when she bares her breasts to him, it’s as much an act of aggression as of flirtation. She pours elegant scorn on Brick’s grasping brother Gooper (a coarse, lumbering Brian Gleeson), his nakedly avaricious wife Mae (shrill, brittle Hayley Squires) and their brattish children – a squalling pack armed with toy guns and sparklers, who scream, fight and torture their teddy bear. But there’s real compassion in Maggie’s tenderness for Lisa Palfrey’s determinedly cheerful Big Mama, whose breasts – between which she keeps nestled a mobile phone – burst out of her too-short, too-tight blue sequinned party dress. When Big Mama is told the truth about her husband’s condition – that he has terminal cancer – she falls to her knees in noisy, howling anguish in his birthday cake, mashing and ripping at his cake, which is soon strewn among the rest of the debris in this bestial battleground of a bedroom. And Colm Meaney is superb as Big Daddy, a bullying bull elephant of a man with sharp, piggy eyes, tormented by the dread of mortality.
It’s a fine production, full of intelligence and unstinting in its dissection of appetite, greed, loneliness and need. That it retains a forensic quality is due partly to its dispensing with a strong sense of place, and with a familiar Kazan-style atmosphere of swelter and steam – and in doing so, it sacrifices something of the play’s flavour. But it’s still an intensely compelling evening of elegant savagery.