SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Fred Abrahamse. With Marcel Mayer, Fiona Ramsay, Michael Richard, Dean Balie, Matthew Baldwin, Jeremy Richard, Tristan de Beer. Set design: Fred Abrahamse. Costume design: Marcel Meyer. Lighting design: Faheem Bardien. Artscape Theatre.
Photographs: Pat Bromilow-Downing
KAREN RUTTER reviews
Despite the spangly backdrop, the gold robes, the spiffy suits, there’s a stark undercurrent flowing through this season of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, one which reaches a powerfully bleak conclusion. It speaks to a crystal clear grasp of the essence of the play, and just how to stage it.
Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer (Abrahamse & Meyer Productions/AMP) have a longstanding relationship with the work of Williams, as they do with the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival. For the past seven years they have been presenting much-lauded productions at this event, most of which have subsequently moved across to South Africa (and been nominated for and/or won several awards, it must be added). So when it comes to all things Tennessee, AMP have it covered. As they so aptly demonstrate with Sweet Bird of Youth.
This version first played in rep with Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Provincetown last year, and appropriately opened on the Easter weekend in Cape Town (the time period when the play takes place). Set in the southern town of St Cloud, it spins a tale of spiritual desolation told by a cast of liars, schemers, hypocrites and con men. Everyone has their own game going (or, in the case of the unfortunate Heavenly, has everyone’s game forced upon her); and while they may have started with good intentions, these have ultimately become corrupted. The only semblance of redemption, if one even wants to call it that, is tragic and bloodied; it is ultimately sterile and will achieve nothing.
Flawed and failed
Chance Wayne (Marcel Meyer) is a gigolo and a drifter who returns to his hometown on the arm of the aging actress Alexandra Del Lago, aka Princess Kosmonopolis (Fiona Ramsay). He is using her to hopefully break into the movie world; she is using him for his youth and sex. Chance has a motive for coming back home – he wants to reunite with his childhood sweetheart Heavenly (Matthew Baldwin). However, Chance doesn’t know that when he last left town, he gave his girlfriend an STD which caused her to have a hysterectomy. Heavenly’s father, the corrupt and racist politician Boss Finley (Michael Richard), has sworn to castrate Chance if he returns – just as he swears to do to black men who mess with white women.
All the characters are flawed or failed in the most brutally unattractive ways: Chance’s weak attempt at blackmail, his petty wish to be seen driving a Cadillac, having “made it” when he returns home; Alexandra’s vain belief in the fickle “star” system; Boss Finley’s hypocritical praise of religious and family values, even as he tucks his mistress into a hotel room; Heavenly’s empty womb which has become an empty vessel for all the men to pour their aspirations into. In this “savage land of culprits and victims, predators and preyed upon” as the programme notes describe, there is to be no happy ending, only disappointed dreams and wretched ferocity.
Abrahamse has kept to the spirit of the work with direction that brings out the flawed essence of all the characters, masterfully bringing the work to its shocking finale. He has assembled a small cast who smoothly take on several roles throughout the play, most notably Dean Balie as a saucy Miss Lucy alongside Matthew Baldwin, Tristan de Beer and Jeremy Richard.
But it is the big three parts that get the most air time – and these were remarkably played. Marcel Meyer was the epitome of a small town gigolo with big aims but little chance of achieving them – a nicely nuanced turn. Fiona Ramsay was simply magnificent as the faded, ultimately shallow diva. And Michael Richard was a seething bundle of hatred and discrimination in a role he fully inhabited.
Sweet Bird of Youth is a challenging, thought-provoking and chilling meditation, one which this production does full honours to. It’s on for a short run, so make sure to make the effort. You won’t be disappointed.
What: Sweet Bird of Youth
Where and when: Artscape Theatre from 31 March to 8 April