“A wild ride”. That is what the cast told me their production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer would be and they were right. The production spills a mixture of madness, violence, and sex all over the stage, powerfully blurring each to allow the audience to discover strange truths. Barefoot actors, dynamic choreography, characters chasing each other and live music palpitating in the background create a sense physical rawness and dynamism, but always balanced by a delicacy emotion behind it. I got the impression that the wildness was not just the actors letting their hair down in the preview; it pulses through the entire fabric of the play and of this production in particular. The cast and the director radiate this vibrancy, even off-stage.
Suddenly Last Summer is a family story, but not a familiar one: domestic problems are rooted in memories of enigmatic events that took place in a wild and foreign natural landscape. Adventurer and poet Sebastian has died on a trip abroad and now his elderly mother, Miss Violet Venable, who adored him, is left to manage his reputation and his money. But there are complications–what happened on the trip (last summer) is uncertain and the only witness available is Catharine, Sebastian’s cousin, who accompanied him, but she has apparently gone mad. A doctor with an odd name and even more unusual methods is called by Miss Venable to help her understand the situation and bring Catharine under medical control. Considering that the play was written as a shorter one-act, Williams’ original script has been maintained well, but the performance is extended with mute flashbacks, creating a puzzle to reconstruct. The audience is left to constantly wonder, ‘what happened?’ and ‘what went wrong?’
The acting was impressive across the board, but I was particularly struck by two performances. Miss Venable was interpreted by a cross-dressed male actor (Derek Mitchell), adding an interesting queerness to the play, but he also dominated the stage and other characters convincingly and realistically. I was blown away by Catharine (Mary Higgins), who performed her supposed madness through an eclectic and ever-changing set of moods: romantic, cheeky, aggressive, hysterical or calm. It was a highly memorable performance. The use of dual roles in some flashbacks were more meaningful in some scenes than in others, but always they reinforced the links between past and present.
The director (Sammy Glover) clearly knows her Tennessee Williams, as one can see in the hauntingly beautiful set full of shadows, a cleverly placed curtain and hanging debris, as mysterious a haze as Sebastian’s past. She followed Williams’ detailed stage directions with the colour and impressionism of the costumes. Nevertheless, the originality of her approach, imbuing the play with movement and dynamism, made the piece even more special. She asked the actors for “breakneck energy” when required and I felt that watching the play. There is a balance of tender stillness in the retelling of memories, in which Williams’ lyrical language takes centre-stage, and of physical violence, in which the actors’ movements amazed me, especially in the flashback choreographies. The only problem, as I see it, is that the fierce dynamism is overdone in one or two scenes (because an old, sick Miss Venable can plausibly only be energetic up to a certain point), and that was unnecessary because the concept is effective overall. Still, I would rather see too much than too little and the play builds up to the climax perfectly.
You will be shaken, as this play exposes the flesh in the coldness of others’ gaze, but never numbed, because emotion constantly breaks through. Go, because it isn’t just another play and it’s not for the faint-hearted.