The Night of the Iguana at the Noël Coward Theatre: Lia Williams steals the show
Does anyone like muggy weather? It’s hot and uncomfortable with the promise of release. This tipping point, however, can exhilaratingly cathartic: when a storm hits, the power of nature is unleashed and the pressure relieved. Set in the Costa Verde Hotel in Mexico, Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana is a muggy play, always threatening a release amidst its quiet characters.
The hotel’s owner, Fred, has died after a cut caused by a fish-hook became infected. Fred’s wife, Maxine (Anna Gunn), has taken over the running of the Costa Verde. Maxine’s patrons includes the de-frocked priest turned tour guide Shannon (Clive Owen). Then enters Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams) and her grandfather Nonno (Julian Glover), a 97 years young pre-WW1 minor poet (the play is set in 1940). Hannah quickly forms a bond with Shannon and amidst the balmy atmosphere the two connect.
With the Costa Verde poised quite literally on the edge of the mountain, the clientele of the hotel are all themselves at the point of falling or have fallen. Rae Smith’s set visually pushes into the theatre’s auditorium and the inevitable storm that ends the first act is beautifully done: Max Pappenheim’s sound, Neil Austin’s light[en]ing and the special effect of rain forms the perfect climax.
That said, not a lot happens in The Night of the Iguana. Characters often shout into the canyon outside the hotel and the consequent echo, which goes unresponded to, is a simple yet powerful suggestion of their loneliness.
James Macdonald’s direction has produced some sublime performances. As Charlotte’s chaperone, Finty Williams was wonderfully spritely and firesome, whilst Glover’s portrayal of an man aged in mind and body is difficult not to be affected by. With a shaking hand from years of alcohol abuse, Owen’s trembling Shannon is delicate and violent, whilst Breaking Bad’s Gunn was sexual and comic but never a caricature.
The performance goes, however, to Lia Williams, whose quiet sadness is sublime. A con and an artist, there is definite pathos to be found in her diminutive movements, and when her paintings are knocked to the floor Williams’s look as if her crumpled life was laid out before her was tragic.
The build-up to a storm can feel more exciting that the act of nature itself. When it rains it pours in The Night of the Iguana, though with the grand moment of marvellous release at the end of act one the challenge becomes maintaining the momentum and power after the interval. At three hours long, this is a slow-burning piece that warrants careful attention. Whether or not this can be done throughout the oppressive heat of Williams’s play is a challenge. But this is a mesmerising production worth sweating through.
The Night of the Iguana is at the Noël Coward Theatre until the 28th September.
Photograph credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg