The defrocked priest who is disillusioned with the church and battling against alcohol and a nervous breakdown was in many ways a reflection of playwright Tennessee Williams’s own feelings. Now Woody Harrelson, former theology student and wild child, gets to identify with the part of Shannon in The Night Of The Iguana. Caroline Bishop went to the Lyric to see Anthony Page’s new production.
The Hotel Costa Verde, Mexico in 1940, is the gathering place and refuge for an odd assortment of characters, each struggling with their inner demons, in this soul-searching play. Run by brash, loud, recently widowed (and enjoying it) Maxine Faulk (Clare Higgins) – aptly described by Shannon as “bigger than life and twice as unnatural” – the Costa Verde is a shabby, out-of-season hotel in the Mexican jungle. Shannon, an old friend of Maxine’s, is a former priest chucked out of the priesthood for “fornication and heresy” after succumbing to a young girl’s persistent advances and berating his congregation. Now trying to keep his mind away from a breakdown and his mouth away from a bottle, Shannon has turned tour guide and brings a group of Texan Baptist students and their sanctimonious leader Miss Fellowes (Nichola McAuliffe) to the Costa Verde.
Joining the already disharmonious group is the “financially dehydrated” watercolour artist Hannah Jelkes (Jenny Seagrove) and her 97-year-old poet grandfather Jonathan Coffin (John Franklyn-Robbins). Add a couple of Germans, one hysterical 17-year-old girl (Jenna Harrison), two bimboy Mexican hotel hands and one iguana and it’s a mix more potent than Maxine’s Rum Cocos.
The play essentially rests on the strong dialogue and the talent of the actors to convey the emotional traumas that all the characters are facing, or denying. Maxine, though just widowed, is brazen in her advances towards a reluctant Shannon, taunting him to give up any hope of returning to the priesthood and stay with her in Mexico. Against this embodiment of Shannon’s demons is Hannah, who instead believes in Shannon’s ability to throw off his “spooks” and not sink lower. But spinster Hannah has her own problems, with a lonely past and an uncertain future. Shannon finds some refuge in talking to Hannah, but this is constantly battered by Maxine’s headache-inducing taunts and Miss Fellowes’s refusal to see any good in him.
None of this is particularly resolved after almost three hours of soul-searching, when the play comes to an end with Coffin’s final poem. Tennessee Williams has left all characters with their futures dangling and their demons exposed but not exorcised. It’s enough to drive you to drink.