Tennessee Williams' 27 Wagons Full of Cotton

Summer in the south is aggressively hot and stiflingly humid. There is no escape from it. It dominates life and determines its pace. Creating that heavy air is essential to the successful staging of any Williams' text and Fox and Hounds Theatre Company has created a triumph in Tennessee Williams' 27 Wagons Full of Cotton by doing just that from the outset.

This production should be measured not in shining stars but teardrops, of which I shed many at the end

The delicate opening piano music belies the dark series of events that are about to unfold. With well-constructed sound effects, such as the bark of a dog, the roar of an engine and the raging crackle of flames from the local cotton mill being burned down, the illusion of tranquillity is dashed. There is no mystery surrounding what has happened. Jake, the rather distasteful owner of a cotton gin, has set fire to Silva Vicarro's mill. With his rival's business in ruins, he tries to play the good neighbour while educating his wife, Flora, in the art of cover-up and false alibi. Silva knows Jake is responsible but can't prove it. He takes his revenge by raping Flora; an act in which Jake is arguably complicit.

The power of this play lies not in the plot but the highly charged text and ability to create characters that give it full sway. Codge Crawford looks like a nasty piece of work from the outset. His portrayal of Jake Meighan more than lives up to to the initial impression. He is the epitome of male domination; a physical and emotional bully who subjects his wife to violent abuse through his words and deeds. He is to be neither contradicted nor stood up to.

Stephen Caruthers imbues Silva Vicar with similar traits. His piercing eyes and distant air give his calculated manoeuvres terrifying menace. He seems capable of committing any pathologically motivated crime. The weight of all this macho oppression falls on Flora Meighan. Helen Fox deftly captures the complexities of this character. Probably not that bright to begin with, she is lured into playing baby games with her husband and submissiveness to her rapist in order to avoid further pain and to boost their brutal, egotistical sense superiority. She proclaims that women are not meant to have ideas and asks to be excused from thinking because she is lazy. Her sense of worthlessness is compounded by not having children. The grotesque irony is that her dream might be fulfilled by her vile seduction and the ultimate act of defilement.

This play is emotionally draining for actors and audiences alike. As the heat of the day rises, so does the tension. The air becomes increasingly charged with the vocabulary of sexual suggestion that leads incrementally to the final horror. It is not just a matter dealing with the hideous behaviour around which the play is moulded. It is impossible not to appreciate the timelessness of its subject matter. These ugly acts undoubtedly took place in southern homes but this portrayal of domestic violence is as authentic now as it was when Williams wrote it. Its tragedy is played out many times over, every day, all around the world.

This production should be measured not in shining stars but teardrops, of which I shed many at the end. The performances are breathtaking and the production is a stunning triumph.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

In 1930s Mississippi, a cotton gin mysteriously burns down. In difficult financial times it appears that the rules of business are different. Do two wrongs make a right? A dysfunctional relationship is at the centre of this disturbing look at abuse and how one woman may find a silver lining in a desperate situation. This play deals with the social and economic climate of a country coming out of recession, and transcends this with the still relevant issues of mental health, domestic abuse and rape. "Seemingly fragile people are the strong people really". Classic Tennessee Williams.