The Rose Tattoo @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Zoe Wanamaker
Darrell D’Silva
Susannah Fielding

directed by
Steven Pimlott and Nicholas Hytner
When Sicilian dressmaker Serafina delle Rose’s husband is killed, her life stops. For the next three years she spends her days shut away in her tin-roofed house, wearing only a faded nightgown, wallowing in grief to the point of self-indulgence.

When her daughter Rosa starts to show an interest in dating a young sailor, Serafina locks away her clothes so the girl can’t leave the house. She makes much of the passionate relationship she shared with her husband, yet demands chastity from her daughter, as if she wants to keep the world on hold. On the day of her daughter’s graduation, her closed-off existence is blown open by the discovery that her beloved husband may not have been as perfect as she thought and by the arrival in her life of a bumbling, oafish but good-hearted truck driver.

Tennesse Williams’ The Rose Tattoo is a big, messy play. Ideas of love, between husband and wife, mother and daughter, man and woman, glimmer brightly at its centre but the surrounding elements are drawn in very broadly, sketched in an almost cartoonish manner. An old crone frequently stalks across the stage mumbling about “those wops” being at it again, and Rosa’s relationship with her young, improbably innocent sailor boy is stilted and unconvincing.

The production takes a long while to get going, with early scenes rather repetitious and meandering. In fact the play only really starts to gather pace after the interval when Darrell D’Silva’s truck driver arrives on the scene and Serafina starts to discover that the human need to feel desired, and to desire, did not die along with her husband.

The contradictory, volatile Serafina is played by Zoe Wanamaker. It’s an intriguing casting choice: according to the play the woman married in her mid teens and was widowed when her daughter was still only twelve, so Wanamaker is clearly too old for the role. Despite this, she is not unconvincing as a raw, expressive Sicilian woman, even if her acting relies a little too much on ‘big’ gestures – the flinging up of hands, the proud toss of the head. It takes the presence of D’Silva’s character to make her performance really come together, and they spark well off one another.

Mark Thompson’s rotating set, a cut-through of Serafina’s Gulf Coast house that revolves to provide a backdrop for both interior and exterior scenes, is also well executed. It certainly fills the Olivier, and contains some nice details her dressmaker’s dummies watch proceedings from the window like two silent observers alongside the statue of the Virgin Mary that sits prominently on the wall.

Though overlong at nearly three hours, the production is part of the National’s excellent Travelex 10 ticket season and as such definitely worth seeing. Though this infrequently performed Williams’ play is undeniably flawed, it has a lot that is of interest in it. The production’s original director Steven Pimlott died during the rehearsal period and the National’s Nicholas Hytner took over. This is a celebratory work, Williams’ “love play to the world” and, despite its dramatic patchiness, it is this idea of love as redeemer, healer and saviour that stays with you.

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