Summer and Smoke Review – ‘re-staged inventively, but unpretentiously’

Rebecca Frecknall's musical re-imagining of William's play at the Almeida is dazzling

Matthew Needham (John Buchanan) and Patsy Ferran (Alma). Photo: Marc Brenner

“Who was it that said that – oh, so beautiful thing! – ‘All are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars!’”

In Tennessee Williams’ much neglected 1948 play, Summer and Smoke, it is the character of Alma that says this to the other lead, John. The play, set exclusively in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, at “the turn of the century through 1916”, revolves around these two characters. They are in love from the start but can never get past their polarised differences. John is a medical doctor, whose secular worldview places people as “ugly machines” that should have no impediment to physical “satisfaction”, in his case through drink and women. Alma (“Spanish for soul”) is a preacher’s daughter who resists such cynicism, but suffers from “nervous attacks”.

This play is analytical and questioning. Alma is taken aback upon realising that the ‘stars’ quote belongs to Oscar Wilde, presumably viewing him as immoral.  Williams stated his work was “emotionally autobiographical”: to what extent does an author’s life change the message of their writing? And what exactly counts as “looking at the stars”? Does this metaphor really require looking outwards, or inwards? Alma has used a telescope but is unable to grasp the scale of what she sees (“Did you know that the Magellanic Clouds are a hundred thousand light years away?”, John asks her sarcastically). For John, it is through a microscope that one can really see a “universe”, which is “part anarchy – and part order”.

Director Rebecca Frecknall and her team have created a production that is likewise part anarchy, and part order. In Williams’ script he outlines quite specific descriptions of the set pieces, with particular emphasis on “the sky”, which “the entire action of the play takes place against”. He also states that there should be “no really interior scenes”. If this open view perhaps represents Alma’s reaching for the stars, then Frecknall and designer Tom Scutt have instead sided with John. Instead of sky we have the bare, rough walls of the Almeida. Orangey-yellow bulbs at the back of the stage are the only indication of a sky scene, dim stars against the stone. Instead of the three set pieces that Williams describes, we have an empty centre stage, with concentric semi-circle steps towards the rear suggesting the lenses of a microscope. In the opposite of Williams’ stage directions, Frecknall has taken the idea of “interior scenes” to its extreme – we are inside the body and mind.

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The only physical set pieces on stage are nine pianos, forming the final giant concentric circle. They are stripped of their exteriors, so that we view their insides like a surgeon viewing a body. Concentric circles combined with the number nine recall Dante’s circles of Hell, but despite all of this the set is not intimidating or oppressive visually. The stage has a moody, piano-bar aesthetic, and the minimalism of the set design doesn’t feel bleak or empty. Composer Angus MacRae uses the pianos to great effect; his score is filled with inverted pedals and sus chords, reflecting Alma’s mental state, always at risk of an “attack”. When the suspense does reach climax, MacRae has the musicians playing in canon – but slightly out of time, creating a hellish series of looping melodies. When the pianos aren’t being used, the pendulums of the mechanical metronomes on their lids tick loudly – time is a key motif of the play.

There are more conventional songs too: Anjana Vasan sings a reworking of Portishead’s Glory Box at one point, and Forbes Masson sings an excellent number towards the end. Interestingly, Patsy Ferran never sings, despite Alma being a singing teacher. At the start, we first see her character in front of a mic stand, as if about to sing to the audience. Instead, she just breathes heavily, almost violently, into the mic. Is this indicative of pain? Sex? Suffocation? After, other characters compliment her singing; what we witnessed was her internal experience of performing.

Williams was a painter as well as a writer and his concept of ‘plastic theatre’ tried to combine these mediums to an extent. By replacing the ‘sky’ background and colourful costumes with simpler visuals, pianos and mic stands Frecknall is replacing visual art with music: reinventing ‘plastic theatre’. This allows her to explore the expressionist potential of a playwright long confined to “poetic realism”. Realism does not suit Alma and John; they are such extreme foils to one another that Williams works in jokes about Alma’s attacks being a result of her “irritated doppelganger”.

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One way in which the lack of set or costume change does present a slight challenge is in the actors’ doubling of parts. Vasan, for instance, plays four roles, and it becomes difficult to always differentiate between them. I also have some reservations about ‘Papa Gonzales’; a drunk old Mexican whose only role in the play is to commit a murder. This character certainly needs to be more well-rounded or developed to stop it feeling out-dated and borderline-racist. Eric Maclennan’s Mexican accent wasn’t overly convincing either; this character’s brief role in the play presented some issues.

Ferran is the star here. A newly-rising talent of the theatrical world, she was excellent in Polly Findlay’s production of The Merchant of Venice, which was perhaps an influence, as another show with a minimalist set and ticking pendulum motif. Summer and Smoke gives Ferran a real chance to show off the full scope of her abilities. Funny, tragic, vulnerable and strong all at once, this production becomes all about Alma.

Alma is a difficult character to play, partly because Williams seems to have used her as a chance to explore Freudian ideas surrounding women – the woman driven to neurosis by sexual abstinence. The sexual appeal of motherhood: ‘Alma’ may be “Spanish for soul”, but it is also traditionally associated with ‘mothering’ female characters. “you don’t have a mother to take care of such things for you” she says to John in the first scene; “It was a pleasure for me to be able to”.

Ferran and Frecknall navigate this sensitively though, and to great effect. All in all this production is some of the best theatre I’ve seen in a long time, and certainly worth trying to get a ticket for (watch the ‘rush’ ticket releases on Tuesdays). Williams’ already little-known play is re-staged inventively, but unpretentiously, to create a performance that you’ll experience rather than just watch. Williams would likely not have minded Frecknall’s deviancy from his directions: he stated that “the imaginative designer…should not feel bound by any of my specific suggestions”. And this production is imaginative. It will sit you in the gutter, but it’s an “oh, so beautiful thing”!