London Theatre Review: The Night of the Iguana at the Noel Coward Theatre
| By Jack Hudson
It’s sometimes odd to be crammed into a warm auditorium, amongst your tribe of fast-paced, fidgety Londoners – to wait as those lights dim, and see everyone falling into a trance-like silence for two and a half hours. It’s even more odd when the fixation of that trance is a quiet hotel drama on a battered veranda, with no set changes, few props (save a few chairs and bags being lugged on and off stage) and a small, often mercurial cast. It can only mean one thing – Tennessee Williams has brought everyone abruptly into a deep emotional maelstrom, and The Night of the Iguana is in motion.
Set in the 1940s on the Mexican coastline, the play starts at an easy pace, with a laconic local playing a harmonica as the theatre lights dim. From there the still pool is set for the cast to hurl themselves in. The semi-dressed Maxine Faulk soon becomes an ever flowing and powerful force, channelled by Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad). Her relationship with the next arrival – tour guide Rev Lawrence Shannon, Clive Owen (Children of Men) – is the crucible of tension throughout the first act. Shannon is a wreck, his nerves frayed and a busload of “hens” hounding him from beneath the stage, insisting he’s given the ladies dysentery and enforcing his sweaty, heady descent into madness, like a white-suited Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. All the while the pressure seems to swell upwards and swallow him from beneath the stage, rising from the ambiance of lizards scrabbling and bus horns and holiday chatter...
The trance never seems to break. The flow of characters and their interplay billows your sails at all the right moments. From the hilarious and oblivious German family to the dignified dying poet, Nonno, Julian Glover (Game of Thrones) and his granddaughter, Hannah, the mesmerising Lia Williams (The Crown), who cuts a woman of unflinching poise – a sketch artist and water colour painter, caring for Nonno as he struggles to realise his final work. It’s wonderful to watch the defrocked and turbulent Shannon, himself a personification of the raging tropical storms, being eased by the doldrums Hannah creates as she pierces his pleas and his self-indulgence and beautifully redefines his most violent moment (being hog-tied in a hammock) as a “voluptuous” Christlike sacrifice, stating that his mania is no danger to him – “not for someone who loves it as much as you”.
One of the most powerful aspects of the play is its use of the conjured tropical environment. The audience is seated where the sea breeze rolls, which creates the curious experience of having the cast turn to you as a source of calm and comfort. Often they seem to confide in you, searching for answers, and you can almost feel the briny-tossed breeze as it flows from behind you and rushes up to the stage and ruffles the palm leaves overhead. Slowly day turns to night and the shanty rooms become low-lit worlds separated by thin partition walls. Finally, these worlds collide amidst a crescendo of thunder and lightning as monsoon rains sweep in and drip from the corrugated eaves.
The elemental onslaught brings the agonised Shannon to his knees and at once the comic moments disappear and he becomes more than a “man of God… on vacation” – he is a rampaging soul bound for the rocks. And yet all is not lost. The play’s rolling final notes play out as the storm clears and we are privy to a peaceful, transcendent union as the chaos subsides – a finished poem, a freed iguana, and a sense of calm, emotional fulfilment that lingers long after you leave the Mexican coast and return to the city lights.
The quiet and captivating The Night of the Iguana is playing for a 12-week run until September 28th 2019 at the Noel Coward Theatre.
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