FRESH FROM an acclaimed run at the Dublin Theatre festival, Corn Exchange - one of Ireland’s most innovative theatre companies - come to the Town Hall next week with their bold reworking of Tennessee Williams’ 1950s’ classic, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.
Williams’ play provides a searing portrait of a wealthy family on the brink of implosion as voracious greed, seamy passions, and devastating truths reach fever pitch amid turbulent household conflicts.
The action unfolds over one fraught, stormy, evening as the Pollitt clan have gathered to celebrate the birthday of formidable patriarch Big Daddy, who also happens to be dying. The heat is rising for his family as they square off to take over his enormous estate.
Big Daddy’s favoured son, Brick, has turned to the bottle to drown out a truth he can’t suppress and the incessant clawing of his desperately frustrated wife, Maggie - the play’s eponymous Cat.
Corn Exchange have made their reputation with their distinctive brand of commedia dell’arte as seen in hit shows like Dublin By Lamplight, Lolita, and Everyday. However their staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is arguably their most radical touch in relocating the action from 1950s’ Mississippi to modern-day Munster.
Interestingly, the two actors portraying the play’s central duo of Brick and Maggie – Rory Nolan and Simone Kirby - appeared together in the Town Hall a few months ago in another audacious ‘Irishing’ of a theatrical classic, Rough Magic’s exhilarating Taming of the Shrew.
Kirby is therefore well placed to assess Corn Exchange’s transplanting of Tennessee Williams.
“A lot people will try to put Shakespeare into some new context when they stage him,” she notes, “but I don’t know if anyone has tried to take Tennessee Williams out of the Deep South before. Funnily enough though, it really works.
“After a while rehearsing it all began to sound natural - Andrew Bennett’s Big Daddy for instance just sounds perfect, he’s this very believable tough old Irish farmer. In this modern-day reading, Maggie is like a WAG and Brick is this GAA sports-hero and it really works.”
The play’s visit to Galway marks something of a homecoming for Kirby. Though she initially hails from Clare, her acting career commenced with Galway Youth Theatre in the mid-1990s where she featured in productions of As You Like It and The Crucible.
She then moved to Dublin and enrolled in the Gaiety School of Acting and over the past decade she has worked with Ireland’s leading companies, including the Abbey, Gate, Rough Magic, and Druid – where she was one of the DruidSynge ensemble.
Her one previous appearance with Corn Exchange – in 2003’s Mud - saw her nominated for an Irish Times/ESB Best Actress Award. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof marks her first real experience of working with Corn Exchange’s special brand of commedia dell’arte.
“We didn’t use it in Mud,” she recalls. “We started out in rehearsals for Cat using a somewhat more heightened style and then started using commedia dell’arte elements while not going all the way into using white-face makeup. I had done some workshops in commedia before with Annie [Ryan – Corn Exchange’s Artistic Director] though they were based on improv exercises so this play was the first time I’d used the method with a script – so it took a bit of getting used to!”
If the reviews are anything to go by, Kirby has more than got ‘used to’ the challenges of the role as her portrayal of Maggie has been lavishly praised with The Guardian calling it ‘a compelling blend of defiance and vulnerability’ and The Irish Times saluting her ‘wonderful, complex Maggie’. Kirby offers her personal perspective on the character,
“She’s very desperate and it’s not pretty,” she says. “She’s trying so hard, clutching at straws, yet she never gives up - there’s a great determination there. No matter how often she gets knocked down she picks herself up again and I love that about her.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is directed by Annie Ryan. The cast features Simone Kirby, Andrew Bennett, Declan Conlon, Rory Nolan, and Helen Norton. It runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday October 21 to Saturday 25 at 8pm nightly. For tickets contact the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.