“It’s like a quiet excitement, a quiet exuberance, a quiet anticipation.” This is how Cat On A Hot Tin Roof star Phylicia Rashad described the feeling at yesterday’s first rehearsal for the eagerly anticipated Tennessee Williams production.
Rashad, along with co-stars including Adrian Lester, Sanaa Lathan and James Earl Jones, came together for the first time yesterday to begin rehearsing the play which Rashad and Jones starred in on Broadway in 2008.
“There’s been a buzz about this show ever since it was announced,” said Lester, who has not worked on the London stage since leading the cast of the National Theatre’s Henry V six years ago. The actor, familiar to many as Mickey Bricks from TV con drama Hustle, somewhat appropriately plays Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. “It’s a fantastic part, that’s the main thing. After all of this [publicity] bubble has burst and everything’s died down and what has been inflated has passed and the reviews have come and gone, it’s a really good part. To get to play that each night and to really explore it and push myself as an actor in that way, I’m looking forward to it.”
The production, which opens at the Novello theatre on 1 December, features an all black cast. While much was originally made of this choice, Lester explained “I think it’s just a new, different, vibrant way of looking at the production, so that will hopefully help to add to the sense that we are looking at a classic play and reinventing it, giving it a new, modern, vibrant take.”
Debbie Allen, the American director who directed the production in the US and resumes her role for London, agreed: “This is a work that is described as American classical theatre and it works in every culture and language. I think if we were Chinese it would work.”
While the press intruded on the company’s first day, the constant questioning couldn’t dampen the spirits of all involved, who were universally excited about beginning a new chapter in the show’s history.
Jones, who reprises his role as Big Daddy in London, was clear that he would be looking for something new from the London production, rather than simply reviving his Broadway performance, and was eager to get started. “Actors live very lonely lives,” he said, “no matter what their social and their private situations are, in terms of the play we live in our bedroom, study, whatever with that script. Until we come and do our first rehearsal it is very lonely because we are only cooking in our own incubator. Here, we finally get to hatch.”
The production will mark the first time in more than 30 years that Tony Award-winner Jones, who also famously provided the voices of Darth Vader and The Lion King’s Mufasa, has plied his trade on the London stage, following his 1978 debut in Paul Robeson. He admitted looking forward to performing for the London audiences, who he described as “good listeners”. Allen agreed: “The London audiences are real theatregoing audiences. There’s a longer history; you’re an older country. We were still trying to find our way out of the swamp when y’all were in the theatre.”
Allen, like Rashad and Jones, has the tough job of leaving thoughts of New York behind to concentrate on the new British production with an almost entirely new cast. Though she admits she can’t come to it with a clean slate, she optimistically exclaimed: “It’s like marrying a man for a second time; hopefully it will be better.”