Theatre Review: The Night of the Iguana

Rating: 3

By Georgina Brown

There’s nothing quite like a Tennessee Williams drama, filled with overwrought, overblown characters at the end of their tether, trapped in an over-hot place, and overdoing everything, be it sex, drink, abstinence or outrage. The tortured symbolism implicit in the title of his 1961 play, The Night of the Iguana – there is an iguana also trapped and tied up outside the hotel where the play is set – is a clue to the play’s massive challenges. The task for a director is to locate the depths – and find the hearts and souls – beneath the characters’ over-exposed shallows. 

The usually brilliant James MacDonald succeeds only patchily. Even Rae Smith’s set for the boarding-house precariously clinging to the edge of a Mexican jungle is a bit hokey, more of a rustic (actually plastic) stop-off for passing Pirates of the Caribbean than a last-chance saloon, until fabulous thunder and lightning storm when monsoon rain cascades onto the corrugated iron roof, and momentarily detonates the play’s suffocating inertia.

Here, Shannon, a defrocked minister, drummed out of his church for seducing underage girls, and now (implausibly) a holiday tour guide, has rocked up with a busload of dissatisfied Baptist schoolteachers. Clive Owen looks the part. There’s still a shadow of dishiness behind the feverish sweatiness and dishevelment of a grubby linen suit and crucifix. He claims that ‘the spook is in my bed’ meaning he is having a breakdown. But beyond a bad case of the shakes, which can only be steadied by another rum-coco, he falls short of suicidal desperation. Crucially, he seems less frightened of himself than by the tour spokeswoman shrieking at him for bringing them to such grotty places or by the besotted teenager in hot pursuit. 

The ‘hotel’ is presided over by the recently widowed Maxine, played with terrific vitality by Anna Gunn. She appears, breasts bursting from her balcony bra, from a bedroom evidently having found consolation in the embrace of a local lad. ‘I know the difference between loving someone and sleeping with someone,’ she says with an astuteness one trusts.

More compelling is Hannah, another unwelcome guest who arrives breathless having pushed her 97-year-old father up the cliff path. Lia Williams, her skin stretched over her fragile face like fledgling bird, glowing like an angel, suggests both vulnerability and steeliness. Her mesmerising stillness grips. ‘Nothing human disgusts me unless it is unkind or violent,’ she says. Tennessee Williams’s own compassionate credo, surely, made eloquent in a marvellous performance. But she alone moves one in an otherwise torpid evening.

Night of the Iguana is at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2N until 28 September: 0344-482 5138,