Tennessee Williams, greatest of American playwrights, enriched drama with his ear for the dialect of the American Deep South, and then he enriched it again with his ear for that of Italian immigrant families. In The Rose Tattoo, he has both. As with any major playwright, dialect for him was not just a matter of surface style: it cuts straight through into veins of emotion, character, even, one might say, the collective unconscious. As Serafina delle Rose, the play’s young but widowed protagonist, a protective mother who represses her daughter’s sexuality until she rediscovers her own, Zoë Wanamaker cuts through to those things too. She has the chesty voice that she can place gutturally and nasally in the mask of the face in moments of intensity, and she has the weighted body-language too, both slatternly and voluptuous, with vehement gestures fully supported from the back. She’s a marvellous mixture of opposites: squat and curvaceous, passionate and in denial, shrewd and dumb.
With her in mind, director Steven Pimlott chose to revive this play at the National Theatre: a project frustrated by his death this February and yet fluently fulfilled by his long-time friend Nicholas Hytner, the National’s artistic director. Mark Thomson, designing, places Serafina’s house on the revolve: literally as well as interpretatively, we see the household from different angles as the play proceeds.
Two performances are perfect foils for Wanamaker’s Serafina. Susannah Fielding (fresh out of acting school, an exceptional debut) as her daughter Rosa, both Italian and American, both child and woman, and Darrell Dissolve (never better, vocally in the groove and physically perfect from face to foot) as the feckless Italian stranger Mangiacavallo, who enters Serafina’s life and transforms it.
The dramatic themes of The Rose Tattoo are not complex: sexual passion is first buried, then – not without some reluctance and self-contradiction – acknowledged. But Williams’s mastery of suspense is such that a newcomer to the play never sees where it’s heading, and his feeling for social context makes this community of Southerners and Italian immigrants absorbing. Some of the women in supporting roles have been coached to speak in uniform Italian accents and rhythms that become stereotypical and yet, when they go into mourning for Serafina’s husband, we recognise true Mediterranean grief.
With this review, I pay my tender farewell to the Financial Times. I joined it in November 1988 as its junior dance critic. I thought then that dance was all I knew how to write about, but a series of canny arts editors decided otherwise, always giving me new hoops to leap through.
In April, I start work in New York as chief dance critic to the New York Times. It is a great job, and one that will challenge me yet further. But it is a sign of the great health of London theatre that it was no simple decision to accept. And it is a sign of the FT’s support to its writers that it has made reviewing a real pleasure, with never a hint of editorial pressure to conform to other opinions. Thanks to the FT, these 18 years have been my life’s best. Rich fare, happy days, and – as the old saying goes, though not always among theatre critics – glorious nights.
‘The Rose Tattoo’, National Theatre, London SE1, tel (0)20 7452 3000