Jungle fever

Theatre - As Tennessee Williams's "last great play" comes to London, Michael Coveney relates its tro

After the poetic languor of The Glass Menagerie (1945) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), the muscular, sardonic Night of the Iguana represented a dramatic shift in Tennessee Williams's writing. For the first time in the UK, Williams's "last great play" is now opening at the Lyric Theatre, directed by Anthony Page, in the two-act "acting" version produced by Williams for the Broadway premiere in 1961. "By that time," says Page, "he had seen Albee and Pinter - he absolutely loved The Caretaker - and was much more interested in gunfire, staccato dialogue than those long poetic speeches. He felt his writing was changing as he rehearsed this play."

The plot centres on a flawed priest, Shannon, who is battling alcoholism and a history of sexual entanglements with young girls. Now working as a tour guide in Mexico, he is torn between the temptations of Maxine Faulk, the widow owner of the Costa Verde Hotel on the edge of the jungle, and the serene interventions of Hannah Jelkes, a spinster and travelling sketch artist.

The play, the first of Williams's major works not to be set in the Deep South, draws on the playwright's youthful experiences in central America. Williams visited Mexico in 1940 and decamped to the Hotel Costa Verde on the coast near Acapulco, where he recovered from an affair with the Canadian dancer Kip Kiernan and wrote the poem we hear at the end of the play.

The hotel, he recounts in his memoirs, was invaded by a party of Germans - Mexico was overrun with Nazis during the war - "jubilant over the firebombing of London which was then in progress". When he greeted one of them, an attractive girl, she replied, "Sorry, I don't speak Yiddish," assuming that all Americans were Jewish. "And," writes Williams, "some Mexican boys did catch an iguana and tie it up under the verandah to be fattened for eating - but nobody cut it loose." He projected the image of the captured iguana on to the stage and the restraint of Shannon in his hammock, creating one of his most powerful theatrical metaphors.

The 1961 Broadway production was troubled. Bette Davis, playing Maxine, fell out with the director, Frank Corsaro, and left the show the week before the New York critics voted it the best play of that year. Davis was succeeded by Shelley Winters, who spent most of the run in her dressing room, sipping bour-bon and missing cues. "It is hard to say which was worse," said Williams's agent Maria St Just, "but at least la Davis drew cash. La Winters seems only to sell the upper gallery."

In 1964, John Huston directed a "freely adapted" film version, eliciting one of Richard Burton's most interesting and vulnerable performances as Shannon, rushing into the familiar, redemptive arms of Ava Gardner's Maxine. Gardner later found her performance embarrassing, even though the film was a happy one. The only member of the cast who acted up at all, she said ("unless you count Sue Lyon's continual making out with her boyfriend as acting up"), was the iguana, which refused to dash for freedom when released, on account of having been treated like a pet for weeks: "It took a few well-placed jolts of electricity to get the poor guy to scuttle off like he was supposed to." It will be fascinating - and, to those familiar with the film, something of a relief - to see the play as Williams finally intended it for the stage.

The Night of the Iguana is at the Lyric Theatre, London W1, from 5 December until 25 March 2006. For booking and further details call 0870 890 1107