Suddenly Last Summer
To his critics Tennessee Williams writes in capital letters, as former National Theatre boss and Williams enthusiast Richard Eyre has admitted. One could also variously describe his work as poetic, febrile, portentous, pretentious, (at worst). His plays, to take the critic's part, are never knowingly underwritten.
Theatregoers who are firmly outside the camp (no pun intended) of Williams admirers are unlikely, perhaps, to be swayed by Sheffield Theatre's powerful and powerfully-cast production directed by Donmar Warehouse supremo Michael Grandage and starring Dame Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton.
Strangers though, have certainly been kind to this production of Suddenly Last Summer, critics almost to a man, heaping it with praise for the two terrific performances by its co-stars and the stunning set by Christopher Oram. Deservedly so. And yet I have to get off the streetcar before the terminus of adulation, alighting at 'flawed but well-worth catching' stop, after 'higher tosh' at which the critic of The Daily Telegraph stepped off, shaking his head.
The quibbles I have are with the piece itself, written in Williams' early, great phase, a phase which began in the mid 1940s with the The Glass Menagerie and which ended, by fairly common consent, with the publication of The Night of the Iguana in 1962, although he continued writing for the next two decades.
Among the themes embraced by the play during its 90 minutes (played without an interval) are: homosexuality with a strong suggestion of pederasty, an unhealthily close mother-son relationship, mental illness and cannibalism.
Appropriately, the play is set in the jungle garden of a southern mansion. Huge red flowers recalling nothing so much as Little Shop of Horrors, climb the walls (within the first few minutes Mrs Venable (Diana Rigg) is talking about feeding a Venus Flytrap). Steam rises, parrots shriek. In Sheffield the set was even more striking, a huge metal cylinder cracking open, itself like a giant flytrap, to reveal the interior, snapping shut again at the end.
The plot itself is pure melodrama. Sebastian Venables, manqué poet and dilettante, has died in mysterious circumstances while holidaying with his cousin Catherine Holly (Hamilton). Catherine has subsequently had a breakdown and been institutionalised by her aunt (Rigg). Not content with this, however, Mrs Venables is bent on getting her lobotomised in order to stop her niece repeating her lurid account of the circumstances of her son's death.
Rigg gives a star turn as the aged dowager; implacable and metaphorically unbowed despite a recent stroke which ended her travels with Sebastian, travels which trailed clouds of glory - in her mind at least. "We were a famous couple", she tells Doctor Cukrowicz (Mark Bazeley), in a rasp redolent of the late Katherine Hepburn, "we left behind us a trail of days like sculpture."
The last gives a flavour of the heightened language employed by Williams, 'theatre poetry' created out of 'theatre language' as Richard Eyre puts it. Some may find it pretentious, but in writing thus, Williams expanded the possibilities of theatre. Sebastian's partially-devoured body is described by Holly as "a bunch of red roses, torn, crushed and thrown against the wall."
Unfortunately here, the theme Williams marries the style to is too slight and won't bear the weight of all this rococo and what results is grand guignol.
Eyre (again) wrote that the big mistake directors make with Williams is to treat his writing as camp. Grandage plays it admirably straight and, one longeur in the opening fifteen minutes apart, the play grips from first to last. I have saved the best feature of the play to last; Victoria Hamilton's dazzling performance as the unstable, neurotic and desperately needed Catherine. This is acting of the highest order and I wouldn't be surprised if an award nomination didn't follow.
The supporting cast are rock-solid and the evening is further heightened by a superb soundtrack by Adam Cork. This is a first-rate production of a flawed play but one well-worth seeing. Wish I'd caught the tube at Sheffield though.
Peter Lathan reviewed this production when it reached the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, in the punultimate week of its tour. Philip Fisher reviewed the West End production.
Reviewer: Pete Wood