In the current Broadway revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, the most beautiful thing on stage is Scarlett Johansson’s Maggie the cat. But the set, dreamed up by veteran British designer Christopher Oram, runs a close second. A soaring, impressionistic fantasy of the bedroom of an old plantation house, it is tall enough to fit in the Metropolitan Opera, but versatile enough to support the endless comings-and-goings of the play that Tennessee Williams called his favorite. Bullett spoke to Oram this morning, to ask about the set, the staging, and a certain unpopular ghost.
Tell me where this set came from.
I’ve worked with [Director] Rob [Ashford] for five or six years now. We designed it from the center of the play, working out, allowing us to expand or contract to fit the space. The bed is the heart of it. The bed is the center of the story. Everything fans out from the bed. The gallery, the trees, the Spanish moss, it all radiates out from the bed.
Maggie refers to a cage that she’s trapped in. The scale of the doors deliberately evokes a cage, and the floorboards have a sort of femininity to them. The soft curtains, the drapes and stuff, are deliberately feminine. All of the furniture has rounded edges; it’s all very feminine, which Williams’ writing has in it. It speaks with a very unmasculine voice.
It’s all about being trapped, really. She’s being eavesdropped on. Taking the wall away allows everyone to see into that world. Those were the basic tenets of it.
When you open a play and see the incredibly detailed stage directions that Williams wrote, do you like that, or does it make you feel hemmed in?
I enjoy writers. I love the idea of writers. And at the end of the day, my job is about serving the author’s needs. Williams is quite specific. He has a lot of stage directions. He talked about the stage being abstracted, so the set has a slightly grandiose feel to it. It’s a house in the middle of a 28,000 acre plantation—it’s not your average suburban bedroom.
There’s been a lot of chatter about the character of “Ghost Skipper,”who was in the show in previews but dropped before opening night. What can you tell me about the idea of having Skipper’s ghost appear when he was being discussed, and why it was decided that the idea didn’t work?
There was a lot of anger about it. It was anger! There was something vile that man wrote, reporting hearsay, but it created such a riot, an absolute riot, and after that it became very hard. A dozen reviews mentioned it, even though it wasn’t in the version of the play they saw. It became a bit of industry gossip, baggage those reviewers brought in when they saw the play.
The point is, Skipper is in the play. He’s mentioned constantly. He’s the third part of the triangle. Having him there really helped Scarlett and Ben [Walker, who plays Brick] establish the weirdness of their relationship. The removal of it didn’t change their relationship.
I’m saddened that one isn’t allowed to experiment. If we’d done it on opening night and it had been removed and we’d gotten the flak, then fair enough. But isn’t that the point of previews? With the Internet, literally the first performance becomes public property. This also makes the critics slightly redundant., if a critic brings that gossip, that baggage into the review.
I think it’s good to see a show’s producers trying something, admitting it didn’t work, and taking it out. That’s the point of previews.
When a show costs so much money, the damage that causes, by not allowing things the opportunity to get better—you can see the wreckage of those shows scattered across Broadway. They go dead in the water before they’ve had a chance to get out. Obviously with Scarlett attached, the play had a better shot, but at the end of the day, the damage that all that negativity caused certainly affected the reviews.
It was not a good moment for us. We’re the ones making this work, and it’s up to us to decide how to present it. We had that right taken away from us by the amount of spin put on it. What bemuses me is that, it was just a simple idea. Why was it more contentious than the last production, which was all black? That’s surely at least as controversial.
In this play, people are constantly moving in and out of the bedroom, going into the house and out onto the gallery. How does all that movement affect your design?
Rob enjoys movement and so do I. A play like this is long, so this is an opportunity to keep it fluid, to keep it on its feet. Watching the sun set through the French windows, keeping it mobile, it keeps the whole thing slightly more alive. People’s attention spans aren’t what they were when he wrote the play, and this play demands attention.
Especially when it starts with that long opening monologue, which is so exposition-heavy.
I don’t think of it as a monologue. It’s all in the form of questions. She’s moving around, she’s getting dressed, she’s not running upstage and standing and delivering a speech. It’s very much more a live, alert thing. Scarlett is just an amazing presence. She’s got that fantastic figure. She’s got curves and hips. She’s alive in it, she’s so homey in it, without having to be rolling around on the bed doing all that cat acting stuff.
Some of the critics complained that the set wasn’t intimate enough. Why do you think your more grand design is appropriate for the script?
Well, it’s literally as big and as small as that stage would allow. It’s a domestic drama, but not set in a domestic location. It’s not set in a suburban house. It’s rich with language and history. They have a house full of servants. The scale of the windows is perhaps off-putting.
That was my favorite part. And my girlfriend wants the settee that sits center stage.
It’s a house I’d like to live in, albeit in the winter. You can’t please all the people all the time. It was a depressing week, really a depressing week, when we got those reviews. The worst part was, none of them agreed on anything. How could Scarlett be too loud? And the staging, we haven’t invented any of that. Williams wrote it. It’s all there.
You kind of go, okay. Fine. You have an agenda. We did what we set out to do, and I can live with bad reviews, as long as I don’t agree with them. If the set were smaller, you wouldn’t see it. It would just be lost on the stage. It’s a big house!
With some critics and audiences, seeing this kind of play, you wonder if they’re not upset that they’re not just watching the film version.
There’s something about American drama that, I think, differs from English drama. I don’t think it’s that because we’re not American, we couldn’t possibly know how to design an American play. But I think maybe our taste is different, and this is our taste. It says in the script—the wall should go up, the ceiling should become the sky.
How has the experience been for you?
What’s not to love, coming to New York for Christmas? And you get to work on Broadway. That’s an emotional feeling for a kid from Sussex.