There’s top-tier Tennessee Williams – The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – and then there are scores of other plays by the deified American dramatist, ripe for rediscovery. The Night of the Iguana isn’t exactly scraping the bottom of the barrel, but it’s not the cream of the crop either.
It was a short story written in 1948, then became a one-act play in 1959, before the final, three-act version premiered on Broadway in 1961. Its production history in Britain is patchy: it was last staged in the West End with Woody Harrelson in 2005, and before that received a revival with Alfred Molina and Eileen Atkins at the National in 1992.
This new production is directed by James Macdonald and stars Clive Owen – making his first West End appearance since 2001 – as well as Lia Williams, Finty Williams, Julian Glover and Anna Gunn, familiar from her role in AMC’s Breaking Bad. It runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until the end of September.
But does Macdonald manage to make a case for this forgotten Williams work? Can his star-studded cast convince the critics? Is this a Night of the Iguana to remember?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
The Night of the Iguana is about a disgraced Episcopalian minister-turned-tour-guide and the companionship he finds in a 1940s Mexican hotel with a New England spinster, her elderly grandfather and the establishment’s widowed owner.
For some critics, it’s an overlooked masterpiece. It’s an “extraordinary feat” and an “artful collision of mad, black humour and deep delicacy of feeling” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), and “a serious play for serious people” that “fully embraces the best and worst of humanity” according to Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk, ★★★★).
But critics reckon it’s on the ropey side. It’s “much bigger on stifling atmosphere than it is on plot,” complains Clare Allfree (Metro, ★★), while Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) says that it has a “languor” and is “full of underdeveloped characters”. Those “seeking high drama must look elsewhere,” says Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★). “This isn’t in the same league as Williams’ masterpieces.”
Most critics are quite equivocal. It’s “a sensuous, humane, if over-baked piece about the hope that people can offer one another,” says Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★), while Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★) calls it a “torrid tragicomedy” but concedes that “its core message – that kindness and dignity matter, even to lost souls – feels pretty refreshing right now”.
“That’s the deal with Williams, who wrote a handful of masterpieces and a lot of overwrought nonsense,” says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “The Night Of The Iguana is neither, thought it’s a little of both.”
James Macdonald has helmed some huge hits in recent years, Annie Baker’s John at the National, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre, and Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone among them. How well does he handle Williams’ meandering Mexican play?
Most critics are full of praise. Macdonald’s production is “magnificently modulated” according to Taylor, “typically meticulous” according to Billington, and “simmeringly powerful” according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★).
“Characters are deftly crafted, their collisions and connections beautifully controlled, and Williams’ wit sings out,” writes Lucinda Everett (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “There is a powerhouse trio of designers at work, too, with Tonys and Oliviers aplenty between them.”
There’s Neil Austin’s lighting, Max Pappenheim’s sound, and Rae Smith’s design – “a majestic creeper-strewn mountain-top set” as described by Sierz, that’s “spectacular” according to Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★) and “stunningly realised” according to Shenton. It’s “a thing of wonder, like a gigantic extra character, vivid and huge and disconcertingly believable,” adds Lukowski.
There are only a few grumbles. Cavendish reckons “that stagey stuff”, referring to the thunderstorm created by Austin, Pappenheim and Smith, “feels slightly coerced”, while Allfree moans that the whole show “moves inexorably slowly” and Curtis complains that Smith’s “looming cliff set is unnecessarily cluttered and oppressive”.
Clive Owen cut his teeth on British TV, before Hollywood came calling. His stage work has been sporadic. He famously starred in the premiere of Patrick Marber’s Closer in 1997, but has only done two plays since then – A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in the West End in 2001, and Old Times on Broadway in 2015.
Here he plays Reverend Shannon, a fallen priest-turned-travel-guide accused of raping an underage girl and harangued by his abandoned tour party. And he is, most critics suggest, quite good.
He has the right “nervous intensity”, writes Billington, while Tripney says that he “gives a good account of a man engaged in a battle with himself”, and Lukowski likens his “funny and frazzled” performance to “very much as one might imagine Nicolas Cage might play it”.
“Owen begins the evening as a nervous fidget, pacing the stage, calling out God and sneering at any social or sexual convention that might cross his path and then some, before nosediving into paroxysms of delirium, eventually emerging at the end of the evening with a palpable touch of grace,” describes Sierz. “It’s an amazing effort.”
Not everyone agrees. Maxwell calls his performance “a characteristically contained one” and complains that “Owen is not the actor to exult in lyricism or revel in chaos”. Instead, he says, “everything gets squashed into his fuzzily frazzled midrange: Nicolas Cage on sleeping pills. When he does get carried away, so does his American accent.”
His co-stars Lia Williams and Anna Gunn, however, are universally lauded. Gunn is “magnificently un-vain” for Taylor and “carnally vivacious” for Allfree as hotel owner Maxine, to whom she lends “a radiant sensuality that belies her profound loneliness and rampant jealousy” according to Billington.
Williams, meanwhile, is “simply spellbinding” as spinster Southern belle Hannah, according to Shenton, and “astonishingly moving” according to Tripney.
“The character of Hannah Jelkes is a fascinating one, though, more robust than many of the playwright’s women – strange, sad and graceful at the same time, pleasingly at ease with herself,” continues Tripney. “Williams captures all of this, and more.”
Some critics consider The Night of the Iguana a masterpiece, but most concede that it’s not top-drawer Tennessee Williams. It’s central theme of salvation and sensitivity among strangers is arresting, but it’s characterisation is ropey and the plot is rough around the edges.
James Macdonald’s production is delicate and deft, though, and features fine work from designer Rae Smith, lighting designer Neil Austin and sound designer Max Pappenheim. Clive Owen doesn’t disgrace himself either, but his star is arguably outshone by Anna Gunn and Lia Williams.
Three-star and four-star ratings suggest that this is a top-tier revival of a second-string play.