TENNESSEE WILLIAMS was no stranger to the clergy. He spent a good portion of his childhood in the Mississippi home of his maternal grandfather, the Revd Walter Dakin, and he was close to his actorly cousin, the Revd Sidney Lanier, whose ministry to the Manhattan theatre community flourished before he resigned it to embrace the arts full-time.
Williams apparently based his priest-protagonist in The Night of the Iguana, the Revd T. Lawrence Shannon, on Lanier. This genuine anti-hero is hard to like and yet impossible to loathe in the latest production of this seldom seen work currently running at the Noel Coward Theatre. The play lacks the focus and tension of vintage Williams, but unfolds Chekhov-like over three hours and gives actors much opportunity to display their craft. It is moving, powerful, and ultimately rewarding.
It is set at the Costa Verde Hotel on the western shore of Mexico; the designer Rae Smith’s set illustrates rickety cabanas on a cliff edge that towers through the back wall like a Krakatoan threat. The action opens with the newly widowed proprietress, Maxine Faulk, making merry with one of the local Latino lads in between the demands of a family of German guests, caricature patriots on vacation from their Nazi homeland; for it is 1940, and they exult as the wireless reports fresh bombs over London.
The arrival of Shannon, on a break from active ministry as he leads tour parties around Central America, strikes a consistent note of dilemma. His current flock is a coachload of ladies needing bed and board, and he peddles the Costa Verde as the place — much to their disagreement, presented in the form of “butch” Judith Fellowes, played firmly by Finty Williams. When a hesitant spinster arrives with her elderly grandfather, a Homeric poet in the composition of his final poem, we have more questioning: without money, should they be put up? Shannon, an old friend of the hotel, argues yes, but Maxine must run a business.
© brinkhoff-moegenburgClive Owen as the Revd T. Lawrence Shannon in The Night of the Iguana
Moral conflict is the dominant note. How do they respond to the Germans without a declared national loyalty either way? How do we treat the poor and the elderly, hauntingly embodied in the “completely broke” Hannah Jelkes of Lia Williams, and Julian Glover as her affecting Nonno? And the ethical challenge in Shannon himself, suspended from his parish for “being seduced by a girl under 20” (statutory rape).
Clive Owen’s performance as Shannon is the beating heart of this play, giving us something crumpled, hollow, elusively likeable, and non-committal all at the same time. His “original vocation” seems as frail as the buttonhole on his clerical collar, which he puts on to argue that he has not been unfrocked. Nervy, sinewy, hypochondriacal, he is sexually desired by Anna Gunn’s sassy Maxine, and yet meets his emotional match in the equally complex and fluid spinster Hannah. So a crowd of misfits, a signature cocktail (here, the rum-coco), and a storm brewing: pure Tennessee Williams.
The director, James Macdonald, keeps it moving and allows the main nocturnal dialogue of the second half between Shannon and Hannah to throw devastating clarity on the play’s ideas — that in some ways we are all as tethered as the captured iguana beneath the stoop. Shannon is eventually left behind by his coach party, and with some relief; he has been entangled with a teenage girl on the tour. Stripped of his former authority in every role, he continues to parry with his religious faith, against the idea of God as a “senile delinquent”.
We are left with the humbling vitality of generosity to one another which we so desperately need, and the knowledge that salvation truly begins when we see how much we need saving from ourselves. The Costa Verde (“green coast”) gives some hope for human flourishing, against all the odds.
At the Noël Coward Theatre, St Martins Lane, London WC2, until 28 September. Box office: phone 0844 482 5151. iguanawestend.com