“I don’t write about life”
A programme note informs us that His Greatness is not a play about Tennessee Williams. Instead, Canadian writer Daniel MacIvor has chosen to write a tale inspired by him, based on ‘a potentially true story’ from the twilight of his career. In a hotel room in Vancouver, ‘the playwright’ (never named…) is still clinging onto the lustre of his former glories and desperate to recapture the dream with his latest premiere. But even his ever loyal assistant is beginning to flag and the arrival of a rent boy into the claustrophobic hotel room over a trying 24 hour period forces a reassessment on the part of all three men.
Jean-Marc Puissant’s traverse design does an excellent job of transforming the Finborough’s space into a slightly drab hotel room, double bed at one end and desk at the other, from where bon mots are bounced and verbal volleys are launched, languid seductions attempted and frustrated dreams ground down to dust. MacIvor’s writing is sharp and funny as the three men play the power games they can to come out on top but as the play progresses, the tone becomes more reflective, increasingly bitter as the realities of chasing fading stars become painfully apparent. Walker’s intense production manages this inexorable shift extremely well, mainly thanks to an outstanding cast.
Matthew Marsh (apparently a late replacement in this cast) brings an appealing charm to the emotionally volatile playwright, hungry for affection and validation and all too willing to seek refuge in male escorts and pills. Toby Wharton (last at the Finborough as the star and co-writer of Fog) as the taut young man hired as eye candy balances a sexual cockiness and an almost endearing denseness to create something just a little tragic, full of hopeless dreams. But it is Russell Bentley’s (last seen in Williams’ own A Streetcar Named Desire) factotum who really steals the show, a former lover of Williams’ who now attends to his every need and tries to keep him on the straight and narrow as best he can. Bentley’s cajoling interplay with Marsh is deliciously played and there’s a great cattiness about him, with an underlying jealousy of course, as he sees Wharton’s tighty-whities attempting to supplant him.
Tennessee William fans might be a little disappointed if they’ve booked this show in the anticipation of some biographical insight, but MacIvor’s scope is wider than just that and the resulting work in His Greatness is something that is consequently much more affecting. The strong intimations of Williams are cleverly used as a compelling hook yet what emerges is a powerful message that should resonate with anyone, gay or straight, about not leaving it too late to live one’s own life.