Suddenly Last Summer

Tennessee Williams
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2004)

Diana Rigg

An enormous cage-like cylinder, lit by shafts of light from every side, dominates the stage before the play begins, and then, as the houselights fade, opens to reveal a steamy garden, full of brilliantly red flowers (reminiscent, as Pete Wood said in his review, of the plant Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors) and gnarled, twisted vines, which dominate a table, chair and wheelchair below a balcony with glass doors leading into the house, with stairs coming down.

It's quite a coup de théâtre in the grand style, and a fitting prelude to what is to come. Suddenly Last Summer is Williams at his most steamily melodramatic, increasing in intensity throughout the 90 minutes (without an interval) the play lasts. The suffocating high society of New Orleans, redolent more of pre-Civil War aristocracy than the 1930s setting, a dominant mother with a scarily close relationship with her son, mental breakdown, homosexuality, pederasty, cannibalism, lobotomy, bribery - all come together to create a world in which the central character Sebastian - dead but living for us through the conflicting stories of his mother Mrs Venables and his cousin Catherine Holly - finds God in the image of birds devouring baby seat turtles as they scuttle, in most cases vainly, towards the safety of the sea. The name itself conjures up a vision of the famous painting of his sanctified namesake, pierced with arrows with blood running from every wound.

In some ways it is a play made up of two monologues, from Mrs Venables (Diana Rigg) and Catherine (Victoria Hamilton). In many ways - and this is in no way intended to denigrate the other actors - the other characters are almost cyphers, there to flesh out the background. Except for Dr Cukrowicz (Mark Bazely) who becomes almost the referee in the conflict between the two women.

Diana Rigg's Mrs Venables did have its Kathryn Hepburn moments but I was not convinced the she was the Southern grande dame. The accent seemed wrong, certainly, but, more important, the arrogance at times seemed to degnerate into petulance. Even allowing for the stroke she has suffered and the loss of the son around whom she built her life, there should still have been steel there. As for Victoria Hamilton's Catherine, she convinced totally but I was not alone (indulging in my usual ploy of listening to the audience as they left the theatre) in finding her deep south accent a little hard to follow at times, especially when she was speaking across- or upstage.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan