Zoe Wanamaker stars in the National Theatre revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1951 play The Rose Tattoo, which opened last night (29 March 2007) at the NT Olivier, directed by artistic director Nicholas Hytner who stepped in after the death of original director Steven Pimlott last month (See News, 15 Feb 2007).

Wanamaker – last seen at the National in the 2003 stage version of His Girl Friday as part of the inaugural Travelex season - plays Serafina Delle Rose, an Italian-American widow in Louisiana who withdraws from the world after her husband's death and expects her daughter to do the same. The revival, the first production in this year’s Travelex Season in the NT Olivier, also stars Darrell D'Silva, Sheila Ballantine, Susannah Fielding, Stephanie Jacob, Rosalind Knight, Andrew Langtree, Maggie McCarthy and Jules Melvin. It runs in rep until 23 June 2007.

First night critics all appreciated Wanamaker’s performance as the grieving widow and enjoyed the production as a tribute to director Steven Pimlott, who died of cancer after just a few days of rehearsals. However, there were some critics who were less keen on the drama itself, finding Williams’ happy ending forced and contrived, and some were unimpressed with the other actors.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) - Coveney found the production “a glorious, life-affirming account of a big, bustling sentimental tragi-comedy that fills the Olivier stage and frames a tremendous performance by Zoe Wanamaker as Serafina delle Rose, the Gulf Coast dressmaker….” He added: “Alvaro is both a new man and the old one brought back to life, and Darrell D'Silva plays the poignancy of this with a wonderful, brutish, wide-eyed simplicity. His scenes with Wanamaker, as the accidental encounter slides towards a permanent relationship, are rich in comedy and mutual discovery. Wanamaker makes a journey from sexual rapture to sluttish isolation with utter conviction. She gets in a hilarious tangle of discarded underwear when she tries to squeeze into a dress for her daughter’s graduation ceremony, and notes with unwitting approval the trim figure of the sailor she is trying vainly to keep out of the girl’s life…. She slowly comes alive again, leaving the stage with an exultant cry of ‘Vengo, vengo, amore!’ It is a climax that has been won the hard way and richly deserved, and it celebrates Pimlott’s memory and illustrious career with a perfect, joyful aptness.”

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph - “It's a mark of just how great an actress Zoe Wanamaker is that she negotiates the play's uneasy mixture of laughter and tears, absurdity and poignancy without showing the slightest strain - the force-field of her personality holds the contradictions in place. Witness the way she draws rich comedy from Serefina's growling, gesticulating exchanges with two local female gossips who end up being shooed out of the house for their retaliatory vulgarity and coarse insinuation about her late husband. Yet all the while, Wanamaker's frowns and scowls, the tremble in her voice, expresses the anguish that their loose talk is causing…. Wanamaker, moving from confident womanhood, through a passage of ignominy as the local laughing-stock, before finally reviving in the redemptive, hunky presence of Darrell D'Silva's Alvaro, is the imperative reason to see this £10 Travelex production. Most of the other characterisations are broader than the Mississippi, teetering on caricature.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “The company and Nick Hytner, who took over the direction, honour (Pimlott’s) memory by bringing the work to fruition in the attractive, life-affirming production…. The idea of the play seems like it might be more enjoyable than the actual experience of watching it. English actors don't find it easy to plug into hot Latin passion, and the portrayal of the community has a rather deliberate and unspontaneous feel here, with the half-hearted gaggle of kids and chorus of squabbling women…. There's a great surge of comic energy in the second act, though, thanks to the arrival of Darrell D'Silva's adorably funny Alvaro. Stocky in his soiled vest, he's an accident-prone clownish parody of a male hunk and he brings the spirit of opera buffa to the proceedings…. Not an actress who normally paints in splashy primary colours, Zoe Wanamaker seemed in prospect to be odd casting as the explosive force of nature that is Serafina. But she brings compelling intensity, pain and (in the second half) some delectably timed comedy to the role, as when she struggles with her girdle in undignified panic just as lover-boy is showing up for a tryst…. It would be a hard heart that failed to surrender to its generous adult fairy-tale vision.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) - “It was Sam Wanamaker who first introduced Tennessee Williams' play to England in 1958; and now his daughter, Zoe, gives a spectacularly fine performance in it. So fine, indeed, that it both honours the memory of the late Steven Pimlott, who started a production completed by Nicholas Hytner, and gives the illusion the play is better than it is…. Williams created a great character in Serafina that produces from Zoe Wanamaker the performance of her career. What she captures brilliantly are Serafina's contradictions. This is a warm-blooded woman who rejoices in the recollected animality of her, in fact, faithless husband. But Wanamaker also has the propriety of the Sicilian immigrant…. After a sluggish start, the play takes off with the arrival of the substitute for the dead husband. And Darrell D'Silva is excellent as this amiable hulk filled with suppressed sexual longing: watching his hands trace the outline of Wanamaker's well-contoured body is a delight in itself and a reminder of Williams' own comic instinct. Susannah Fielding also makes the most of Serafina's mewed-up daughter ardently in pursuit of the least-likely sailor in dramatic history.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (2 stars) – “This spectacular, revolving-stage production… marks one of those rare and unconvincing instances in which Williams tries to persuade us to see the funny side of sexual desires and neuroses that normally lead to catastrophe in his dramas. The playwright wrote it when he was happy and, creatively speaking, happiness did not suit him…. The idea has been to treat Williams' overblown romanticism with reverent faithfulness. It does not work. An air of preposterousness and contrivance clouds the dusky, cicada-laden scene…. Wanamaker, daringly cast as this pregnant, thirty-something Serafina, puts on an exhilarating, impressive show to persuade us to overlook her maturity and to accept the play's crude psychology…. Wanamaker makes comic and pathetic sense of a Serafina, who is by turns grief-struck, prissy and flustered with embarrassment when sex and ridiculousness strike. A happy ending is imposed like a heatwave in Iceland.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell