Kate Maltby

THEATRE: The Two-Character Play 

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For ten years, Tennessee Williams poured his soul into The Two-Character Play.  It was the longest he ever spent working on one play and it would prove to be his most overtly personal expression. The Two-Character Play is the story of a hopeless brother and sister -  she riddled with substance abuse and delusions, he with despair – a dark fantasy of Williams’ relationship with his sister Rose, who was probably schizophrenic and was lobotomized against his wishes.

For ten years, Tennessee Williams poured his soul into The Two-Character Play.  It was the longest he ever spent working on one play and it would prove to be his most overtly personal expression. The Two-Character Play is the story of a hopeless brother and sister -  she riddled with substance abuse and delusions, he with despair – a dark fantasy of Williams’ relationship with his sister Rose, who was probably schizophrenic and was lobotomized against his wishes. Rose’s fate haunted Williams all his life. He admitted intense guilt for failing to save her, and, more privately, confessed to friends that “I fear that end for myself”. Her presence insists throughout his canon : in the blighted Laura of The Glass Menagerie, the notoriously high-strung Blanche of A Streetcar Named Desire, even The Night Of The Iguana’s marginalized virgin, Hannah. But while The Two-Character Play has a more explicit relationship with the reality of William’s life, its also marks a shift away from the poetic realism of the major plays, towards a style influenced by Beckett and Ionesco. In Gene David Kirk’s taut production, the cast are confined in an uncomplicated black box that might be Sartre’s Hell. Brother and sister, Felice and Clare, are a down-on-their-luck pair of actors performing to an audience as elusive as Godot, and their gradual immersion into an alternative reality could come straight out of Pirandello.

Director Kirk injects the play with some much-needed structure and deftly brings out the play’s latent comedy. The result is a magnificent revival that confirms the Jermyn Street Theatre’s position as one of the most exciting spaces in London. William’s abstract musings remain as frustrating as ever at times, but the cast counter them with breathtaking moments, which defy anyone to stand aloof from the full tragedy of human disappointment. At the centre of this is Catherine Cusack’s frighteningly nuanced performance as Clare. In control of every twitching muscle, Cusack allows occasional flashes of acute intelligence to break out from Claire’s cloud of self-medication – an intelligence that makes her both dangerous and captivating.  Her relationship with Paul McEwan’s Felice is intriguing and feels richly rehearsed. Despite McEwan’s best efforts his performance is hamstrung by the difficult text of his opening soliloquy, a mediation on human torment that represents Tennessee Williams at his most self-indulgent. But from the moment his co-star arrives on stage, the pair go from strength to strength, elucidating a difficult play and making it look easy. At 90 minutes, a gem of a production, and in Cusack, a magnificent performance from a criminally undervalued actress.

Jermyn Street Theatre until 20th November.

Written byKate Maltby

Kate Maltby writes about the intersection of culture, politics and history. She is a theatre critic for The Times and is conducting academic research on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I.

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