Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic
Sweet Bird of Youth was Tennessee Williams’ quest for perfection; he would continue to rewrite the play long after the original was published. The narrative examines the agonies of the human condition – self-loathing, insecurity, fear, isolation and self-doubt – and with so many available drafts, Olivier Award-winning director Marianne Elliott turned to contemporary playwright James Graham to compile the different texts into what Williams seemingly couldn’t: a perfect version. Subsequently, anticipation to see their adaptation for the Old Vic is heightened even without the inclusion of Sex and the City star, Kim Cattrall.
The actress shines as ageing movie siren Alexandra Del Lago, who winds up in the remote town of St. Cloud with 29-year-old Chance Wayne (played by Seth Numrich), an ambitious womaniser determined to realise failed dreams of becoming an actor and eloping with his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Findlay.
Numrich excels with monologue to expose a convincingly troubled protagonist, but he is overshadowed by Cattrall; her performance of the neurotic Alexandra is stirring and consistent. The character delivers much of the humour required to diffuse the sombre subtexts of the play and Cattrall flawlessly switches between demanding diva and tormented has-been.
The plot gathers momentum during the second half and, at last, the audience is transported into the terrifying bigotry of the Deep South through a brilliantly choreographed scene capturing the propaganda and racial tensions of the political climate. A powerhouse performance by Owen Roe, as Heavenly’s egotistical father and bloated politician, steals the show and mutes the indifference for Louise Dylan’s wraith-like representation of his isolated daughter.
This adaptation lacks the tenderness of prior efforts but anguish and longing resonate to generate empathy for its two main characters. There are parallels between Cattrall’s role and her own, well publicised experiences as an ageing actress in Hollywood, but the lasting message from Williams’ story is that we are equally the victims of our own oppression as of that by others.
Is it a better version of Tennessee Williams’ troublesome play? Elliott and Graham have succeeded in creating a compelling adaptation and it would be nice to think that the playwright’s ghost can finally stop clanking his chains and enjoy eternal rest – but one fears it’s more likely that his spirit is still putting pen to paper and working on that ultimate, perfect draft.
Sweet Bird of Youth is at the Old Vic until 31st August 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch Kim Cattrall discuss Sweet Bird of Youth here: