“His Greatness is not a play about Tennessee Williams,” insists author Daniel MacIvor. The central character is never identified as Williams, but simply as The Playwright. He is, however, like Williams in terms of age, sexuality and personal and professional condition and he speaks with so heavy a southern drawl that by comparison Blanche Dubois would sound Brooklyn. He is in terminal decline as a writer, a wreck of insecurity whose relationship with his assistant (The Assistant) is a web of consensual fictions and power-plays. In a Vancouver hotel room for the premiere of his latest disappointing work, the two-way tensions become three-way when a further player enters in the form of a rent boy hired as an escort for the evening.
Ché Walker’s production centres on Matthew Marsh, in a strong performance that is all the more admirable for his having joined the production only 10 days or so before press night. Marsh’s Playwright preaches, simpers, whimpers and demands that those around him fuel his delusions of his continuing importance. The Assistant (Russell Bentley) at one point quotes Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but in truth is more like Albee’s George, the worm who finally turns. Toby Wharton’s Young Man is one of those sly figures who think they are playing others when in fact they are being played.
MacIvor muses, in the 85-odd minutes of playing time, not only on Williams but also on that writer’s own preoccupations: power, sexuality, memory and the like. The play strikes a tone consonant enough with those of Williams’s works, but that programme-note disavowal comes to sound appropriate: if this is not about Williams, then we should not look too hard for Williams-related insights, just drink in the Williamsesque atmosphere and allusions. It tries, I think, to have its cake and eat it, or perhaps (given the Playwright and the Young Man’s predilections) to have its line and snort it.
Its scheduling is perhaps deliberate in that it arrives after last year’s crop of productions commemorating the centenary of Williams’s birth, but it does not quite avoid being seen in that context. As such, it is well staged and thoughtful but offers no unique addition to the composite centenary portrait.