(Cover image Manuel Harlan) Sweet Bird of Youth – Tennessee Williams, The Old Vic, London.
This summer brings the revival of the tragic American raconteur – a figure hiding his past through the combination of cynical manipulation and wilful self-delusion, enjoying an overblown lifestyle until the edifice crumbles around them. Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby explores the lavish ends to which a character will go to create the illusion, but this production of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 play far better highlights the tragedy at its end.
Instead of West Egg we have St. Cloud, the quintessential Southern town on the outskirts of New Orleans, and instead of Gatsby we have the aptly named Chance Wayne, who – after failing to become an actor, but succeeding in becoming a gigolo to the rich older women passing through Florida – has his last chance at redemption in his return to his hometown.
His aim is to win back the heart of childhood sweetheart Heavenly Finley with the help of one of those Florida women, once successful actress Alexandra Del Lago (the excellently cast Kim Catrell), who travels under the false name Princess Kosmonopolis. She represents his final opportunity to make something of himself through a studio contract he waves in the faces of the skeptical St. Cloud residents.
Alongside chancer Chance, Williams has adopted an almost Dickensian approach to names – played with enthusiastically by the production team. St. Cloud is a dream to Chance, and the set, with towering columns, bleached lighting and flowing drapes, reflects this. Similarly, Louise Dylan as Chance’s impossible Heavenly – first referred to as looking like a dead body as she lies on the beach – floats across the stage, either as merely a silhouette, or a wan, pixie-haired Ophelia. Del Lago, shares her name with Rossinni’s opera ‘La Donna Del Lago’. Williams In this work, the titular lady of the lake – daughter of King James’ sworn enemy, meets the King travelling under a false name, with their love resolving the conflict in the kingdom. Catrell is perfect here, capturing the melodrama of a constantly-performing faded superstar, and the perverse desperation of an addict.
Images Manuel Harlan
It is clear from the wheezing coughs that introduce Del Lago that she is no saviour. This is the first sign of the lingering sense of death that is everywhere in this play – Heavenly’s introduction, a threat hanging over Chance, and Del Lago’s view of her career. In Gatsby was are shown that death can, temporarily at least, be beaten by fast living. Here it cannot. The difference is that Gatsby shows the temporary defeat of class restrictions through the illusion of wealth, whereas The Sweet Bird of Youth shows the impossibility of avoiding the transition into adulthood. If the bright lights and ostentation of Gatsby jarred, this production could be the perfect antidote.
London Theatre Reviewer
Sweet Bird of Youth is Showing at the Old Vic till 31 August 2013. Buy tickets from Official London Theatre