The Night of the Iguana may be the least performed of all Tennessee Williams’ major plays. And that may be because for a drama that is essentially about goodness — lost souls offering each other solace and understanding — there are behaviours that are truly impossible to square. The main character is a statutory rapist, the comic relief are Nazis. Williams is asking a lot.
The paradox is that the better the production and the more honestly played its central protagonist, the disgraced Episcopalian priest the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, the more problematic it will feel. Such is the case here, with this polished, entertaining, starry London staging. Clive Owen’s bravura return to the West End, an assured London debut by Breaking Bad star Anna Gunn and yet another immaculate, deeply moving performance by Lia Williams ensure that we’re in good hands for a long night of the soul. But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that something is not quite right, and that could be the play itself.
The time is 1940 and the setting is the Costa Verde Hotel on the west coast of Mexico, a ramshackle idyll high in a rainforest overlooking the ocean. It’s here that Shannon (Owen), in his current, ill-fitting role of tour guide, comes running for help. Tormented by his party of Texan schoolteachers, who accuse him of sleeping with an underage teenage girl, Shannon drags the group away from their designated hotel to this isolated establishment, run by old friends.
One of those, Fred, has only just suddenly died. Fred’s widow Maxine (Gunn) is running the place alone, with the help of two young locals, Pancho and Pedro (Manuel Pacific, Daniel Chaves), whose services have long extended to her bedroom.
Claiming to be afflicted by fever, Shannon needs a haven, a hammock, and to ensure that the formidable Miss Fellowes (Finty Williams) doesn’t get to the telephone and endanger his job with the tour company. Despite genuinely grieving her husband, Maxine spies a chance to finally hook up with the man she loves. Fellowes wants justice while the 16-year-old Charlotte (Emma Canning) wants marriage with the man who’s just slept with her. Whether Shannon’s fever is real or merely what Maxine later identifies as a biennial, self-inflicted and self-indulgent mental breakdown is moot; but as a storm brews, there’s no denying the general air of conflict and hysteria.
The presence of some German holiday-makers fuels the bad mood, as they crassly celebrate the Luftwaffe’s early successes over Britain. A possible balm, to all, comes in the form of Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams) and her near-century-old grandfather Nonno (Julian Glover), respectively painter and poet, who are itinerant, penniless and in need of charity.
In his first play here since 2001’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Owen reminds us that his charisma is every bit as potent onstage as onscreen. The actor’s best performances tend to involve characters with a moral jaggedness, living on the edge, who are urgent, obsessive and disreputable; his last, great role of this nature being his surgeon in Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick. So he’s solidly cast as Shannon, even if, like Richard Burton in John Huston’s 1964 film version and everyone who has tackled the role onstage, he has his work cut out.
Constantly tottering in crumpled, dirty white linen, Owen convinces as a man worn down by the seesaw between booze and the wagon, and a cocktail of personal demons that make up what he calls his “spook.” There’s broad comedy in his war with the shrill Fellowes, and a touching pathos in his attempt to rebut her assertion that he’s been defrocked; but also an ugly, misplaced pride in his declaration that he was locked out of his church “for heresy and fornication,” the latter accusation being much the same as the current one involving Charlotte.
There is good in the man, notably in his generosity toward Hannah and Nonno and his understanding of her calibre; Owen steadies Shannon’s gait and gaze as he addresses her. But as adeptly as the actor constructs the warts and all, it’s almost impossible to find an acceptable balance. Hannah’s famous declaration that “Nothing human disgusts me, unless it’s unkind, violent” appears to be giving Shannon a free pass.
Gunn gives a full-blooded turn as Maxine — lively, raunchy, no-nonsense, allowing us to see the grief and solitude behind the easy laugh. But this feels like Lia Williams’ show; she has the play’s best character, aptly described as a Blanche with backbone, and works wonders with it. There’s something of a dignified clown in the way she carries herself, with the bleached gamine haircut and kimono, and a voice that has a faraway lilt but a laser-like accuracy for home truths. The long sequence in which Hannah soothes Shannon with her own, lonely story brings a prolonged hush to the audience.
Director James Macdonald orchestrates the play’s tensions well, albeit with two glaring exceptions: allowing the Germans to descend into all-out caricature makes their presence even more jarring, and the long passage in which Shannon is tied into his hammock — Owen thrashing around like a banshee — is stretched toward tedium.
The top-notch production team perfectly capture a tropical idyll in which the default position is to have another rum coco but which teeters on the edge of natural chaos. Designer Rae Smith gives the buildings the makeshift feel of favela shacks, upon which lighting designer Neil Austin casts sunbeams that almost convince of the outdoors, and whose interiors are bathed beautifully in yellow lamplight. Sound designer Max Pappenheim plays his part, too, especially when the heavens finally open upon the humid human drama.
This review first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter