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Both disturbing and utterly engaging: Suddenly Last Summer

With the tagline, “Something unspeakable happened last summer”, you might be forgiven for thinking of Aunt Ada Doom’s (Cold Comfort Farm) cry of “I saw something nasty in the woodshed!”, when looking at the promotion material for the Experimental Theatre Club’s new production of Tennessee Williams’ little known play, Suddenly Last Summer.

And indeed, ludicrous Aunt Ada does bear some similarities to the Williams’ own matriarch, Violet Venable, in her obsessive love of a younger male relative and fixation on the past. It is a tribute, therefore, to Sammy Glover’s direction, Williams’ beautifully poetic script, and, most importantly, to Derek Mitchell’s brilliant acting, that at no point in this production does Violet appear ridiculous in any more than a tragic sense. This is a production that takes a while to get going, but which becomes a magnificent, disturbing tour-de-force, led by two superb actors as the protagonists Violet and Catherine.

Mitchell is a revelation as Violet. My hackles were slightly raised by a man playing a woman’s part, but his nuanced and honest performance more than assuaged my doubts. I was astonished to learn that this is his first non-comic stage role whilst at Oxford. The dead-white make-up and grey wig seemed a little too much when he first entered, given the naturalism of many of the other characters, but it soon became clear that this is precisely the point.

Stuck in a luxurious and artificial world of her own creation, complete with regular 5pm frozen daiquiris, Violet rejects the real world and the truth as too ugly to be believed. Mitchell’s dramatic arm gestures, combined with the fragility of his flowery chiffon robe and walking cane, made for a heart-breaking portrait of a woman caught up in her own fantasy. As her on-stage opponent, Mary Higgins was equally excellent. She was given little to do in the first half, but after the interval really came into her own as the equally fragile, but far more honest, Catherine. Pulled and forced about the stage, her emotions were extreme but utterly credible.

I am amazed at the confidence of any stage performer wiling to de-robe in front of an audience, especially in so big a venue as the Oxford Playhouse. Often full-frontal nudity can seem unnecessary, but here it felt carefully and thoughtfully directed, and totally justified. Forcibly stripped of a bright red jumpsuit covered with what looked like Georgia O’Keefe-style paintings, Catherine was constantly being forced to expose herself for all the world to see, to relive over and over again the darkest and most violent memories of her past.

This sense of exposure also haunted the sparse set, which was punctuated only by twisted wire shapes in the sky, swathed sparingly in white strips of material. These, combined with the faded wooden and tin of the supposedly beautiful garden, lent an air of rotting grandeur.

Glover has prefaced her ‘Director’s Note’ in the programme with a quote from famous avant-garde Belgian director, Ivo van Hove. His style of simple staging, yet intense atmosphere, has clearly influenced her work here. Tension is initially established through a bassheavy soundscape created by collaboration between ETC and Garden Building, an artist from Oxford independent label TREMOR. The music is eerily beautiful, and Georgia Bruce has a lovely voice, but, especially in the opening act, it feels like it is being relied upon too heavily.

There are dance interpretations of Catherine from both ‘The Stranger’ (Seamus Lavan) and Sebastian (Cassian Bilton), which are fluid, and well-acted, but play out for far too long. Glover would do better to cut some of this, and trust in her actors to create the dramatic tension.

The cast as a whole is impressive, with Georgia Pearce standing out particularly as Violet’s maid Miss Foxhill, despite having few lines. The effect of having the ever-competent Bilton playing both Sebastian (with hints of Waugh’s character of the same name), and the Doctor works well. On the opening night, some too-subtle lighting choices, and the decision to leave Bilton lounging languidly reading onstage made for an awkward start to the interval, although I am sure Glover and her team will fix this for future performances. Apart from these minor flaws, this production is both disturbing and utterly engaging.

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