Words, words, words. That’s Shakespeare, not Tennessee Williams, but I’ve seldom been more spellbound by the pursuit of language – the desperation to find the right words, the frustration when words spill out without premeditation, the impotence of words to bring two human beings together – than in Benedict Andrews’ slow-burning, stark Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre.  

Is this production flawless? Not really. Some of Andrews’ theatrical gestures – smearing food, overwrought firework effects – feel like a superfluous salute to the recent London productions of Ivo Van Hove in their excess. Unlike Van Hove’s work, though, the gratuitous elements (lots of nudity included) never feel extra-textually imposed. The destruction of a cake or the scattering of a bag of ice, for example, seem to emerge from among the possibilities of Williams’ world even if Andrews magnifies their scale in this gaping echo chamber of a stage (I was, however, most unconvinced by the occasional use of melodramatic underscoring).

But the programme notes quote Andrews quoting Williams’ stage direction: “I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people; that cloudy, flickering, evanescent, fiercely-charged interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.” And in the pained, sometimes halting, impeccably uncomfortable interactions between people in this production, Andrews and his stellar cast succeed in collapsing the border between real life and theatre, exposing the universality of the playwright’s endeavour: the eternal search for the right words.

Maggie, played by Sienna Miller as coy, clever, and endlessly lonely in her marriage to Brick (Jack O’Connell, defiantly and movingly distant), will do anything to avoid quiet: “laws of silence don’t work,” she tells her husband after she has blasted slinky jazz music and instructed her young nieces and nephews to scream. As exposed as they may be, both on Magda Willi’s metallic, airless set and in their frequent lack of clothing, the pair can always talk themselves back into hiding. Even when Maggie tries to be direct, naming Brick’s maybe-more-than-friendship with his dead friend Skipper as the cause of his alcoholic spiraling, she’s always hopelessly let down by the words she comes up with. Andrews invites introspection from his actors, and Miller’s at her best when finding the ironies in her situation just as O’Connell does his most subtle, successful work when a sliver of a self-deprecating smile breaks through as he tells his father Big Daddy (Colm Meaney) that he’ll never kill himself because he likes drinking too much. Although Miller and O’Connell offer the evening’s weakest Mississippi accents, it’s to their credits that the questionable dialects are never too distracting.

Andrews’ cast is a real ensemble: the best work of the evening comes from Lisa Palfrey’s Big Mama (I loved her in Junkyard at the Rose Theatre Kingston earlier this year too), full of warmth in her uncomplicated love for her husband that no one seems to recognize or understand, least of all Big Daddy. Hayley Squires is squirmingly spiteful as Brick’s holier-than-thou sister-in-law Mae who’s after the family home. The productions heats up the most during the extended scene between O’Connell and Meaney, who delivers an intricate performance with superb dynamic range of a patriarch grappling with the edges of his own mortality.   

Though Cat On A Hot Tin Roof doesn’t end with a movement towards redemption or catharsis, there’s one moment in the middle of the play, a single gesture that echoes like a pealing bell of honesty in a landscape of, as Brick calls it, mendacity. Brick has fallen to the ground in despair and Big Daddy leans down to help him up. “Naw, I don’t want your hand,” the son tells the father, brushing him off, and Big Daddy responds, revealing the love obscured by all the language, like a sun coming out from behind a cloud: “Well, I want yours.”

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is playing at the Apollo Theatre until October 7.