It’s September 1940, and Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) has just arrived at the Costa Verde Hotel. A disgraced priest who was fired for “promiscuity and heresy” who has subsequently been forced to resort to life as a tour guide, he periodically takes refuge at old friend Maxine Faulks’ (Anna Gunn) dilapidated hotel, going through his “crack-ups” there as though it’s his very own free rehabilitation centre. They’re joined by bohemian wanderer Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams), a watercolourist, and her 97-year-old grandfather Nonno (Julian Glover), a dying poet fighting memory loss to write his final poem. They seem like an unlikely bunch of misfits – and they are – and all are used as vehicles for Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical ode to the human spirit.
At just under three hours long, The Night of the Iguana is a little bit of a slog, but there’s a good mix of explosive and messy and considered and touching scenes. The plot centres on cruel, self-serving, problematic Shannon, who while played by Owen with volatility and charm, is incredibly hard to like. It’s revealed almost immediately that Shannon has repeatedly coerced underage girls into having sex with him, most recently a 16-year-old on the tour he’s currently guiding. He’s is threatened with being charged with statutory rape, and when he’s asked by Maxine what that means, he replies it’s “when a man is seduced by a girl under 20”, and I’m a little bit sick in my mouth. Williams’ compassion for the fallen is all very nice, but I’m hard pressed to find an ounce of sympathy for Shannon from this point. Not only is he a rapist, he’s also consistently cruel to Maxine, Hannah, and the Texan Baptist ladies on his abandoned tour (the only person he is pleasant to is Nonno) and seems to relish in his downward spiral, thriving on the theatricality of it all.
Thankfully, the rest of the characters are multi-faceted and interesting. Gunn is capable and vivacious as Maxine, who is both quietly mourning the loss of her late husband and bubbling with jealousy over Shannon and Hannah’s spiritual bond. Williams plays Hannah with gentility and bottomless patience for both her Grandfather and Shannon, and admirably states “Nothing human disgusts me unless its cruel or violent”. It is scenes between the two women that steal the show. Julian Glover is fantastically kooky and unexpectedly astute as Nonno, delivering his final work against all odds with power and grace.
Set and sound by Rae Smith and Max Pappenheim conjure up a tropical wind-beaten cliff-edge that hovers over the veranda. Upon first entering the room, seeing the set complete with swaying palm trees and hearing the steady chirping of crickets does feel a little Rainforest Café-esque, but any novelty wears off when the storm hits, and stunning lighting by Neil Austin creates a beautiful in-house thunderstorm.
You may be wondering why I’m yet to mention an iguana, or if an iguana even features in the play. Well yes, it does. One is captured by two of Maxine’s hotel staff, to be kept under the veranda on a rope until it is fed and fattened up, ready to be killed and eaten. I wouldn’t say this is one of Williams’ more nuanced metaphors, as the parallels between Nonno and the creature at the end of its life, and both Shannon tied to the hammock and the bound lizard desperately thrashing around in panic are repeatedly spelled out to us. A bit behind the times, but with some beautiful, hopeful observations regarding human connection and the endurance of spirit, The Night of the Iguana begins at chaos but finds peace; initially disturbs, but eventually comforts.
The Night of the Iguana is booking at the Noël Coward Theatre until 28 September. For more information and tickets, visit the Delfont Mackintosh website.