Theater Reviews



National Theatre, London
Through June 23

As Madame Hooch in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," Zoe Wanamaker teaches flying and is the referee at Quidditch games. In the National Theatre revival of Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo," she plays a morbidly emotional hothouse flower named Serafina delle Rose, but it would take more than broomsticks to make this overblown production fly.

Williams wrote the play in 1951 for flamboyant Italian actress Anna Magnani, and while she never took the role onstage, her over-the-top wailing in the 1955 movie was enough to win her an Oscar in the same year that Ernest Borgnine won for "Marty."

Although it is set in the U.S. Gold Coast somewhere between Mobile and New Orleans, "Tattoo" lacks Williams' usual rich Southern atmosphere because its characters are all Italian. The action could just as well take place somewhere in the playwright's feverishly imagined idea of Italy. Serafina is a voluptuous seamstress with volcanic emotions whose adored truck driver husband is killed, plunging her into a three-year exercise in ornate grief. She never puts on more than a slip; she argues with her pretty teenage daughter, rages at the local women and fights with the village priest.

Then three things happen to shake her out of her noisy mourning. Her daughter, Rosa (Susannah Fielding), falls in love with a sailor; she learns that her beloved husband had a mistress; and another truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Darrell D'Silva), shows up at her door bearing an identical tattoo to the one her husband had on his chest: a rose.

It's enough to make Serafina smash the urn that contains her late husband's ashes and blow out the candle beneath the Madonna on her wall. Complaining neighbors continue to berate her excessive behavior, children still chase her goat around the crazy woman's house and her daughter continues to try to seduce her young beau. In Williams' crude symbolism, when Serafina takes her new love and claims to have immediately conceived, sex wins out over the sin and damnation promised by church and tradition.

Nicholas Hytner, director of the National, took over the direction when Steven Pimlott, who had developed the revival and begun rehearsals, died from cancer. In his hands, it plays like a musical without music, lurching from one melodramatic sequence to the next and becoming increasingly ludicrous.

Williams describes Serafina as "a plump little Italian opera singer in the role of Madame Butterfly," and Alvaro as about 25, young and very good-looking. Wanamaker is a great actress, but being neither Italian nor of childbearing age, she is clearly not Serafina. As a consequence, her new beau, described by Williams as being like "a young bull," is required to become middle-aged and clownish. D'Silva plays him like a leaner Lou Costello.

The rest of the acting is similarly exaggerated, and the play grows increasingly unconvincing. As emotions become heightened and voices grow strident, the prime impulse is to wish that everyone would shut up.

In fact, the best part of the production is the look of it. Designer Mark Thompson's set of a revolving bungalow enhanced by Peter Mumford's lighting design is beautiful to gaze at. Shame about the people who live there.

National Theatre
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Directors: Steven Pimlott, Nicholas Hytner
Set designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Choreographer: Kate Flatt
Music: Jason Carr
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
Serafina delle Rose: Zoe Wanamaker
Alvaro Mangiacavallo: Darrell D'Silva
Rosa: Susannah Fielding
Assunta: Maggie McCarthy
Father de Leo: Nicholas Chagrin
Estelle: Sharon Bower
Giuseppina: Katerina Jugati
Peppina: Stephanie Jacob
Violetta: Jules Melvin
Teresa: Marilyn Cutts
Mariella: Sadie Shimmin
The Strega: Rosalind Knight
Doctor: Gerard Monaco
Miss Yorke: Sheila Ballantine
Flora: Buffy Davis
Bessie: Sarah Annis
Jack: Andrew Langtree
Girl: Rendah Heywood
Man: Jonathan Bryan
Salesman: Mac McDonald