The Stone Effect
Belvoir’s Resident Director Simon Stone is set to push more buttons with his interpretation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, writes Garrett Bithell.
In Simon Stone’s brave production of Arthur Miller’s 1949 tragedy Death of a Salesman, which played at Belvoir Street theatre last year followed by a season at Theatre Royal, the stage was empty but for a white mid-90s Ford Falcon: all at once a hulking, oppressive symbol of Willy Loman’s dreams, energy, failure and demise. Dismissing the play’s period and geography – no American accents, no house and yard – Stone radically altered its tone, moving it from post-war New York to contemporary Australia. He also cut the play’s final act, or Requiem.
Although it ended up being one of Belvoir’s best-selling shows to date, the production divided Sydney’s audiences and critics. Indeed Stone was forced to reinstate the final scene for the Theatre Royal season after an anonymous tip-off to the US agent that handles the rights. The prevailing objection to Stone’s adaption was that he acted as an author, instead of a director, and overrode Miller’s commentary with his own.
This type of response to Stone’s work isn’t new. Indeed any director with strong vision is going to polarise – and so it has been ever since Stone founded the independent theatre company The Hayloft Project in 2007, and adapted and directed their inaugural production of Frank Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen. This production was remounted in 2008 at Belvoir Street Theatre, where Stone has been Resident Director since 2011, serving up productions including The Promise, The Wild Duck, Neighbourhood Watch and Strange Interlude.
“The idea that you have to hold strongly to cultural specificity to be able to create the humanity of a piece like Death of a Salesman is a very Australian notion,” Stone tells SX. “Something written four thousand years ago, like Medea, still manages to speak to us today. And if we can bridge that distance in time in as radical a manner as we so often do with those Greek classics, it’s silly to quibble over bridging the very small gap of an ocean and fifty years.
“Humanity can transcend the boundaries of accent and locational detail.”
Audiences will once again get the chance to evaluate the practical manifestation of Stone’s philosophies when his take on the classic play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens at Belvoir’s Surry Hills theatre this month. Tennessee Williams’s much-loved exploration of a family in crisis, the production stars Anthony Phelan as Big Daddy, Ewen Leslie as Brick, and Jacqueline McKenzie as Maggie.
“The play offers this incredibly funny and extreme vision of cruelty in personal relationships,” Stone says. “And the brutality of that is so on the surface; it’s not hidden behind period. That’s the great thing about the American mid-century: it was the first time people were really bluntly honest, and it’s what Death of a Salesman has so much of.
“So there was no sense while I was reading it that it couldn’t have been a play that had just landed on my desk from a contemporary writer. The great plays have something that is timelessly human in them, and stories like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof appear in our day to day life all the time.”
[Image] Simon Stone during rehearsals for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photo: Heidrun Lohr
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, until April 7. Go to www.belvoir.com.au.