Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich on the ‘pairing of equal forces’ in Sweet Bird of Youth

In Tennessee Williams’ 1959 classic Sweet Bird of Youth currently revived at the Old Vic, Kim Cattrall plays a fading Hollywood actress traveling incognito, and inebriated, opposite young gigolo and dreamer Chance Wayne, played by Broadway’s Seth Numrich. The co-stars talk to Neena Dhillon about tormented outsiders and placing their faith in the writing.

Seth Numrich and Kim Cattrall
Seth Numrich and Kim Cattrall
© Manuel Harlan

What appealed to you about appearing in a play by Tennessee Williams?

Seth: In common with other leading playwrights of his time, Tennessee Williams writes these uniquely layered characters, but I think what’s really special about him is how he relates that complexity to life. There’s a truth to his characters, and as a writer, he allows audiences to discover them in an organic way. When I first read Sweet Bird of Youth, I remember feeling terrified at the prospect of playing Chance Wayne. But I realised that, if the script could invoke this feeling in me, there had to be an important story to tell.

Kim: Like many women of my generation, who come from a feminist background, I’ve grown up with his vulnerable female characters, women who can be considered victims or hysterics. His work can feel melodramatic at times, and in these stories, it’s usually the woman in distress. What interested me in Sweet Bird of Youth was the pairing of equal forces. There’s a real conflict between my character, Alexandra Del Lago, and Chance Wayne.

The Princess Kosmonopolis (the travelling name used by Alexandra Del Lago) and Chance Wayne share this incredible opening scene. How did it feel to rehearse this?

Seth: A daunting prospect to begin with because we have to fill this immense scene with meaning. As we rehearsed with Marianne Elliott [the director], though, we came to understand that Tennessee has intentionally written his play so the characters unfold gradually. At least one of us on stage is trying to figure out who we are in that opening scene so the audience comes on this journey with us. My impulse is to want to embody a character fully from the outset, but with Sweet Bird of Youth, we are putting our trust in the beauty of his writing and allowing it to take us all on this journey. Chance Wayne is someone you think you know, but then five minutes later, there’s this twist, and then another. Again it feels so true to life because we can meet someone and think we understand them, but as time goes on, we uncover so many different colours and flavours to them.

Kim: The Princess wakes up in a state of amnesia at the beginning of the play. She has no idea where she is and how she got there. That makes things exciting for the audience because it draws them in and invites them to be active participants in the story.

What themes emerged through your exploration of the characters?

Kim: The play deals with ageing and ageism – scary themes to face but ones that get you up in the morning nevertheless. In a society where ageing isn’t considered a desirable thing to do, the characters cling on to fleeting moments that are no longer reality. There’s a real sense of staying too long, not moving on. It’s fair to say that society’s attitude to ageing has improved since Tennessee’s day, when Blanche DuBois was considered an old maid in her 30s, but we still have women commenting on other women, specifically their age. I was listening to an interview with Yoko Ono on the radio the other morning, and the female presenter pointed out that she didn’t look 80 in appearance. And I thought “who really cares what she looks like? This is Yoko Ono.” Every decade brings with it different emotional and physical challenges and expectations; as humans we are constantly battling with moving on.

The Princess and Chance are different ages and come from different worlds. Are they able to identify with each other?

Seth: For me, the common thread to all Tennessee’s writing is the theme of the outsider. Having researched his life experiences, I think you can gain a useful insight into the psychology of his characters. I’m sure Tennessee felt like he was outside the norm. Similarly, the Princess and Chance are tormented outsiders, eccentrics, artists, or at least aspiring artists.

Kim: For Alexandra, a Hollywood actress who has been holed up in isolation, it’s a real shock to make a comeback and to have to live with the realisation that her return to public life has been a complete failure. When you’re such a well-known figure, where do you go when you are not wanted anymore? Where do you belong? So this is a way station for her. When she meets Chance, she recognises something in his personal trajectory. He opens up to her in a way that nobody has. He leaves himself unprotected through his honesty and she finds comfort in that. There is a love story in there for her; she is affected by their meeting. But they are both delusional in their own ways so there is no real hope for them.

Is Chance Wayne also struggling with belonging?

Seth: By setting the play in the Deep South, with its very specific political and ideological climate, Tennessee creates a world in which Chance doesn’t fit. He talks of being born with ‘some kind of quantity X’ in his blood, of ‘a need to be different’. The tragedy for Chance is that other ideals, which seem attractive but are ultimately distracting, seduce him. Tennessee also came from the Deep South, and in this play he exposes and criticises different societal ideals and values. Not just the mentality of the South but the American Dream as well, and what chasing fame and prosperity can do to a person.

So the 1950s American setting is inherent to the play?

Kim: Yes, but ultimately it’s about the story and the characters. Of course the thrill of the theatre is to be transported to another world. In the Old Vic, which is an intimate space on so many levels, our challenge is to work with the heightened quality of the play but to make it real and truthful.

Seth: Settings that aren’t immediately familiar always mean there is a five-minute period where your brain needs to adjust to what it is seeing and hearing. But once you’re settled in, it becomes about the characters and their fears, desires and needs.

Kim: Absolutely, there’s a timelessness to which Tennessee portrayed humanity.

The above interview is reprinted from the programme for Sweet Bird of Youth, which opened at London’s Old Vic on 1 June 2013 and continues until 31 August.