Yesterday, my husband and I were off to Chichester to attend a performance of Sweet Bird of Youth at Chichester Theatre. The play, originally written by Tennessee Williams and revived by Jonathan Kent, features Marcia Gay Harden (Alexandra del Lago) and Brian J. Smith (Chance Wayne) as the main characters. We had discovered Brian J. Smith in the incrediblebutsadlycancelled TV show Sense 8 a while ago. From there, we thought it would be nice to see him on stage. Coincidence and timing did the rest! Now some of you may know I have a particular interest in classical music. I write for people that are unfamiliar with it and sometime I review live concerts. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy standing on the other side for once and being totally ignorant of theatre standards. Therefore, I read a few reviews for fun: critics tend to praise performances but they are questioning the interest of William’s piece, the size of the stage vs. intimacy, pace and set. Well… the good thing about ignorant people is that they usually have a different opinion; so here is my humble – and obviously different – experience of Sweet Bird of Youth:
Brian J. Smith and Marcia Gay Harden © Johan Persson for Chichester Festival 2017
1956. A hotel on the Gulf of Mexico. Alexandra del Lago, a fading Hollywood legend, has fled the ridicule that greeted the premiere of her come-back movie. Desperate for anonymity and forgetfulness, she is holed up in a small seaside town.
With her is Chance Wayne – a young hustler, trying to lend his wasted, disreputable life some meaning and now returning home to reclaim his childhood love from her ruthless father, the corrupt politician ‘Boss’ Finley.
If this plot alone already convinces you to go and attend this performance, good! You are in for a treat! However, if you don’t know the context in which this play was written, I suggest you do your homework and study both Tennessee Williams’s tumultuous life back in 1959 and the US history in the late 50’s. I can hardly imagine separating the play from his writer and so should you…
A jazzy sample and off we dive not in water but in a highly alcoholic hangover between Alexandra and Chance. Time as an enemy quickly becomes an invisible character of this play. In this version by Jonathan Kent, it passes slowly for the better. It gives you time to reflect on characters and your own fading beauty, life and abilities no matter your age. It is also up to you to see time on stage. I could not help but think this big sculpture similar to a cloud or some smoke above the bed is connected to time as well. You can perceive it as a threat above the head of Chance and Alexandra or as a fading element sucking up everything. In any case, Antony Ward (set designer) brought here a creative and beautiful element for the set. Where some critics felt the stage was too big for the intimacy needed, I did not perceived it as an issue and felt quite the opposite: actors were cleverly owning the space available. Yes, the intimate bed was in the middle of a large empty ring but it my opinion it did not weaken the performance but rather provided additional freedom. Moreover, it allowed the audience to imagine this St Cloud city with its surrounding noises with characters arriving / departing the stage everywhere. Again, Ward’s set is clever and makes you understand there is a whole world hidden there. With minimal set on stage, it is up to you to think and build this world as it pleases you. Incidentally, a genius choice was probably the video-recorded meeting of Boss Finley. Screens dropped down on stage, avoiding a boring transition from a set to another and putting emphasis on the main characters’ suffering.
Finally, I am easily impressed by actors. The memory their job requires, the work with their body, voice, accent and use of available space is quite something for the shy girl I am. I also think it is very moving somehow to watch an actor perform from screen to stage. Although they have reading sessions and rehearsals, I believe it is an incredible gift to witness a more spontaneous version of their talent, without screen or effect boundaries. On that matter, it was fascinating to watch Brian J. Smith and Marcia Gay Harden evolve on stage. They both delivered a fine performance and so did the rest of the cast. But I was particularly amazed by Smith’s and Harden’s gestures and postures. Throughout the entire performance, they never failed to satisfy the surrounding audience with their presence.
If – as some critics mentioned – you are confused by the reason you have spent the last two hours watching these characters heading towards self-destruction, lament and redemption, just think about Chance’s last and beautiful line:
I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding – not even that – no. Just for some recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.
Sweet Bird of Youth – from 2 to 24 June 2017
Chichester Festival Theatre
Oaklands Park, Chichester
West Sussex, PO19 6AP