It’s hot, Tennessee Williams hot, and in an old church hall in Southwark, the hottest play of the summer is slowly coming together: the West End production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Jack O’Connell and Sienna Miller play the leads in Tennessee Williams’s walloping family drama fuelled by sex and drink. In the 1958 film, Paul Newman played Brick Pollitt, the golden boy gone to sot, and Elizabeth Taylor was his wit’s-end wife, Maggie the Cat. Together, they generated enough heat to melt metal.
No wonder director Benedict Andrews is turning off three industrial fans after the day’s rehearsals. The 45-year-old Australian plonks himself down in a swivel chair. “You can’t rehearse this play in a protected way,” he says, half-puffed. “You have to dive in at the deep end and hit all those raw emotions and all that pain right from the start. The play cannot work without that incredible sexual charge.”
To that end, this isn’t a case of straightforward star casting. Andrews isn’t averse to that (“I have an appetite to reach a big audience,” he says) but here, he sought something very specific. O’Connell and Miller aren’t your average stage actors, nor are Colm Meaney, who plays Big Daddy, or Hayley Squires (best known from I, Daniel Blake). “They’re all raw-knuckle fighters with a glint in the eye, and that glint interests me much more than a trained, tamed performance.”
O’Connell in particular excites him enormously – not least because of his breakthrough performance in the prison drama Starred Up, which he describes as “one of the most extraordinary, dangerous performances this century – so on edge but so self-possessed”. Brick, he feels, needs some of that. “The whole play is about a very powerful, very beautiful young man drinking himself to death in the cage. When you’ve got a vacuum at the centre of a play, you have to fill it with a cyclone.”
As Maggie, Miller has to match that. “There’s no rest for her until the fifth act,” says Andrews. “Until then, the play just keeps on going.” He likens the play to a runaway truck. “They can never pull the brakes on, and it keeps getting further and further out of control.”
Toxic relationships run right through Andrews’ work, all the way back to his start at the Sydney Theatre Company. His Medea became “a doomed love story”, his Macbeths were sex-mad and his Maids, Clare and Solange, got stuck in a cycle of sadomasochism. “In all of those relationships, you have two people bonded to each other, knotted together, and that knot forces them to strip each other bare. It’s there in Sarah Kane as well: ‘Love me or kill me.’” Strindberg’s Miss Julie is very much on his to-do list, he says.
Cat comes three years after his production of Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Gillian Anderson, which used a stage that span round like a centrifuge. “I realised that, along with Shakespeare and Chekhov, Williams is a writer who gets right to the heart of why I make theatre,” he says. Desire is one of Andrews’ obsessions: “The enigma of desire, desire as a force. Williams is its writer par excellence. He’s the great poet of damaged sexuality and fractured beauty.”
Andrews is often wrongly perceived as a conceptual director. The idea stems from his sets, which are big, bold, sculptural spaces. He plonked Caligula in a sports stadium for English National Opera, a godly emperor on the terraces, and had Chekhov’s Three Sisters dismantle their stage as their world fell apart. “Design isn’t decoration,” he insists. “It’s got to expose something essential in a play.
But Andrews’ stages are first and foremost playing spaces, almost obstacle courses. Streetcar’s spin-cycle kept his cast on their toes. For Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a play rife with eavesdropping and conversations behind closed doors, he’s whipped out the walls. “What does that mean for the play?” he presses, “How do actors deal with that? The idea is always to provoke a way of playing.”
He is, in other words, an actors’ director, more into emotions than ideas, hot passion rather than cold calculation. He wants his theatre raw and unruly, and he frequently anatomises it, talking about “the guts of a play” or “a play’s nervous system”.
“Theatre’s about dragging stories down into the body,” he says. Acting, for him, is absolutely physical; a feat in its own right. “I want my plays to stick in people. I want them to bother you in your dreams. That’s really fucking hard to do and it doesn’t happen very often.”
He opens his scrapbook and turns to a Francis Bacon painting. “It’s like this: in Bacon, paint is always visceral. You feel violence in the paint. You feel faces being torn apart. But he almost always insisted on presenting his paintings behind glass in a golden frame. That’s something I aspire to on stage – the tension between a visceral, physical act within the pressure of a stage frame.”
The point is that actors are really doing something, feeling something, working something through. “The stage creates a reality rather than copying one. For some people that’s conceptual. For me, that’s theatre.”
As such, he doesn’t see his work as experimental. “I just want to put the great plays on stage,” he insists. “I don’t believe I’m cracking them, breaking them or remaking them. I just like to do the play truthfully.”
That’s not quite the same as faithfully – and Andrews knows he’s up against “a tradition of ossifying these plays and mothballing them”. As a young director in Sydney, he waged war on the old-guard culture but now, he feels “that binary’s breaking down”.
It has to be. When a director like Andrews opens a play in the West End, something’s shifted. Ivo van Hove is doing the same next year with All About Eve and Robert Icke’s shows (Oresteia, Hamlet, Mary Stuart) now routinely transfer. Daring direction is, financially speaking, the new safe bet.
“A lot of that, in this town, comes from David Lan,” says Andrews. It was the Young Vic boss who first bought him to London in 2011, along with directors such as Luc Bondy and Patrice Chéreau. “He has, in a very concrete, non-superficial way, changed the theatre culture here.” With Lan stepping down next year, might Andrews be tempted to take over? “It’s my theatrical home here, but my life is in Iceland [he lives there with his partner, choreographer Margrét Bjarnadóttir] and I really want to make more films.”
His first feature, Una, will be released in September. An adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, which Andrews directed at the Schaubühne in Berlin in 2005, it follows a young woman (Rooney Mara) as she tracks down the man who groomed and abused her as a teenager. Some Cannes critics felt it was too similar to a stage play but Andrews, who studied film with theatre, draws no distinction between art forms. “They’re all the same thing,” he says – they’re all about getting great performances from great actors. Generating heat.