Mister Paradise / Suddenly, Last Summer

Tennessee Williams
Theatre by the Lake
Theatre by the Lake

Polly Lister (Sister Felicity), Kate Layden (Mrs Venable), Richard Keightley (George), Cate Hamer (Mrs Holly), Emily Tucker (Catharine) Credit: Keith Pattison
Peter Macqueen (Mister Paradise) Credit: Keith Pattison

Theatre by the Lake has returned to Tennessee Williams for its summer Studio programme, but this time with a double bill of lesser-known, short works.

The curtain raiser is a 20-minute piece called Mr Paradise, probably written around 1938 and only rediscovered relatively recently (summer 2000, along with other early one-act plays by Williams) in which Williams anticipates his own attitude towards fame before he has really experienced it.

The titular character is visited by an enthusiastic student who discovered his little book of poems published 15 or 20 years earlier propping up the leg of a table in an antiques store and thinks that the world deserves to know of his great works. Mr Paradise disagrees, telling her the world is more interested in gunpowder than poems, but tells his young fan to "watch the obituary columns" as that will indicate the time to resurrect his work.

It's a lovely little piece, although just a fragment and perhaps naïve and artistically idealistic, but certainly worth a revival. Peter McQueen gives a nicely measured performance in the title role, and looks more the part than in the publicity photos now that his beard is much more developed. He is supported well by Charlotte Mulliner as his enthusiastic supporter.

The main piece is a little better known, written 20 years later to be part of a different double-bill but perfectly paired here as it is also about the reputation and fame of the artist, particularly after death.

It's always interesting to look for Williams himself in his work. If he is an idealised version of his older self in the first play, in Suddenly, Last Summer, he is the late son of Mrs Venable, who is seeking revenge on her niece Catharine not only for her son's death but also for destroying his reputation.

Sebastian was a poet who produced one poem a year for 25 years. His mother always accompanied him on his trips, until she was ill one time and Catharine went instead; that was the time that Sebastian never came home. Mrs Venable has had Catharine locked up in an expensive institution but has brought in Dr Cukrowicz (Ben Ingles), which he helpfully translates as "Dr Sugar", to consider lobotomising her to stop her from saying terrible things about her son.

It is clear from the start that Mrs Venable is either hiding or in denial about the nature of her son and his death and that she is using her wealth to prevent Catharine from spreading the truth. Under the influence of a truth serum, Catharine talks about how Sebastian used her to procure men for him, but some of these men killed him and cannibalised him.

There are some familiar Williams characters aside from the young male writer: Kate Layden is the domineering matriarch, Mrs Venable, and Emily Tucker gives a wonderfully impressive performance as Catharine, the emotionally unstable younger relative with a history of psychological treatment.

It's a play that takes a lot of listening for an unbroken 90 minutes to follow it, so hardly light holiday fare, but it's certainly worth the effort for a pretty decent production from Mary Papadima.

Reviewer: David Chadderton