Tennessee Williams fans may be delighted to hear that a revival of the playwright’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is currently on tour in the U.K. Having concluded its September run, theatre goers can catch the production this month at The New Woolsey Theatre, Theatre Clwyd, and Mast Mayflower Studios. The play centers around conflict within the Politt family, who have gathered for Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. The revival’s director is Anthony Almeida (Figures of Speech, Oresteia), who won the Royal Theatrical Support Trust Sir Peter Hall Director Award in 2019.
I connected with actress Suzette Llewellyn (EastEnders) over Zoom to learn more about Almeida’s vision for the revival and what it was like to portray Doctor Baugh. I also enjoyed the opportunity to discuss Llewellyn’s new book entitled Still Breathing: 100 Black Voices on Racism, co-authored with actress Suzanne Parker (Holby City). Here are the highlights of our conversation.
What’s a lesson you learned early in your acting career that’s stuck with you?
Before I left drama school, I auditioned for a touring company in Northumberland for the part of Viola in Twelfth Night. In those days, you couldn’t work unless you had an Equity card. You couldn’t get an Equity card until you had a job. It was a real bind. Theater companies would get a few of Equity Cards per year and they were very precious. I managed to get one of these cards so I was very pleased.
I met the rest of the cast, and we had our first little sit-down to talk about the approach and the look [of] the play. The designer came in and showed it was going to be set on an island somewhere. After we’d talked through costumes, the director pulled me aside. He showed me a photograph he’d seen in a book the night before he’d auditioned me. It was of a young woman—at the time I used to wear headwraps on my head—with a profile that wasn’t dissimilar to mine [with] a headwrap on her head. He said, “When you came in, it was like ‘Ah’!”
I was a bit devastated because I thought it was my astounding audition piece that got me the part. I spoke to the actress playing Olivia [about the photograph]. She said, “Don’t be stupid. He cast you because you were good, but that had an influence on him. Sometimes you look for something as it’s coming in.”
There are things other than just you that are in the director’s mind when they are casting. It helped me when I looked at things later if I didn’t get jobs. It’s not that you were not brilliant at what you were doing. I thought that was a really good lesson.
Why did you study British Sign Language?
My first encounter with sign language was in a play, Children of a Lesser God, where I played a character. I found it completely fascinating and wanted to find out more. [Later] I had another job in Belfast where I had to do some British Sign Language. When I had my first daughter, I had time where I was able to focus on other things. I decided to learn British Sign Language. I was fascinated by the fact it is one of Britain’s languages but we know so little about it. I was interested in deaf culture.
What do you think of Anthony Almeida’s contemporary reimagining of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
Because there are so few distractions, you basically are quite naked on the stage. It can focus your mind very much on what the play’s core themes are about: the secrets and lies we have in all families. Some of the images he’s used have been very strong in part of the storytelling. For instance, there’s a part where Brick is very isolated. He chooses to allow him to play with a balloon in the background. The design and the imagery work well in this particular interpretation.
That leads into my next question. What was interesting to you about the staging? I understand there’s netting used at one point.
Yes. That’s a metaphor for the veil that we have about so many things. You almost think you can see something but you can’t. I suppose it’s like veiling the truth. Putting the net there is quite literally doing what the words are doing. [When] people say one thing, you’re not quite sure what they mean and whether they are telling the truth. I don’t know how many characters are reliable narrators.
How do you keep your momentum when your character shows up later in a play?
In this interpretation, the doctor doesn’t turn up in the first act at all. In the original, the doctor is there with the reverend outside as voices. Maggie comments on them playing croquet. What they say in the play happens to reference what is being said by Maggie and Brick in the room. In our interpretation, that was cut out.
I come in during act two, as part of an image which is quite strong. Later in act three, I have lines. The character is there. Anthony has used the company as an ensemble to produce these images that are part of the storytelling. As an actor, to keep your momentum when you’ve got a spurt is basically keeping your focus and energy up. Make sure you’re ready to get on there and do what you have to do. The doctor comes to deliver the news, a truth bomb that they’ve been trying to avoid.
What do you hope that younger audiences will learn from the play, especially since many of them probably read the play for school or college?
I hope they’re going to enjoy the language and the piece. I hope it’s not something that’s going to make them feel this is a dusty old play. It’s important that things are given a life people can recognize. Ultimately, it is about families and how difficult it can be to sometimes express yourself, and how family is difficult but also where you can go as a place for love. There are more ways to investigate a piece.
Let’s talk about your new book and how it came together. Are all the writers from today?
These are all people from today. The whole catalyst of the project was the murder of George Floyd. In my essay, I write about what happened to me and what sort of seemed to burst in me. I wanted to connect with other people and check out their responses because mine was so visceral and surprising in many ways. It wasn’t just the fact that a Black person had died at the hands of law enforcement, which has happened over the years and many times. I think this whole reaction was also something to do with the fact that we were in lockdown.
How it started was that somebody sent me a message on a WhatsApp group that I’m in. It was a beautiful video of Black women dancing and singing to “Brown Skin Girl.” At some point, a banner came up that said being Black is not a crime. I was enjoying the piece. Suddenly, I realized I was crying in that big crying way where you are sobbing and your whole body is wracked. It was that small child in me, that brown skinned girl very early from when she’d gone to nursery school, who spent a few days there but was not valued. She was ugly and stupid to the world, and that’s sort of hit me very hard.
How long did it take you to collect everyone’s voices?
Lockdown might have helped because a lot of people were at home. We reached out to more than 100 people. In July , Suzanne Packer and I decided we were going to do this. We wrote our own essays and sent them to people. [For] about a year, everything was very fast and intense. We wanted to have a photo shoot, but COVID meant that we weren’t going to be able to. We asked people for selfies.
Who were you excited to get on board with the project?
We were certainly excited when we got Allan Willmot, the World War II veteran. He’s in his late 90s. He has an incredible amount of energy. We sat in on Zooms with him. We wanted to make sure we got his story.
We spent quite a bit of time trying to chase David Lammy, who is a [Member of Parliament]. He was brilliant and he was one of the first people to give us his photograph. Dawn Butler was also very generous. We got Herman and Heroda Berhane, fashion and travel bloggers on Instagram and deaf twins who use British Sign Language. I wanted to make sure we had a wide diversity of people from this country. I couldn’t say that there’s any one person in particular that we thought we were most excited about getting.
We were excited to be working with Rose Sandy, our publisher at HarperCollins. She held our hand and led us through this process beautifully.