Lights, Camera, Williams: Review of STC’s Suddenly Last Summer
Suddenly Last Summer (1958) was originally produced alongside Something Unspoken as a double billing. These days Something Unspoken is all but forgotten, and Suddenly Last Summer is left to fend for itself. While it may not be the undisputed masterpiece that Street Car Named Desire is, this darkly poetic and insightful allegory of human nature is still one of Tennessee Williams’ best.
Violet Venable is the wealthy matriarch of a well-to-do New Orleans’ family. Her son, the dashing, debonair poet, Sebastian, died under mysterious circumstances last summer, and the only witness, his cousin Catharine, has been spreading all sorts of awful rumours about his death. The girl is clearly deranged, so Dr Cukrowicz (Sugar) is summoned to hear the story. If he agrees that Catharine is unhinged, then steps can be taken to silence her and preserve Sebastian’s reputation. But the truth cannot be buried and the tale will be told to its shocking end.
Much like Orpheus Descending, Williams has structured the play around a classic Greek tragedy, in this case, Euripidies’ The Bacchae. As such, Williams always stressed that the play was to be read not literally, but as an exaggerated allegory. The point of which is to eschew an element of life that is usually over looked. Here, the central theme is that of devouring. Specifically, how we consume and discard people in our life. ‘We all use each other,’ says Catharine, ‘that’s what we think of as love.’
Every relationship in the play can be defined in this way. Violet is the archetype of this trait, willing to manipulate any character to her own end: she offers a bribe to Dr Sugar, and threatens to withhold the share of Sebastian’s will from Catharine’s brother unless she can be silenced. Of course, Sebastian was no better. He used his mother’s connections to procure young male company. When she was no longer able to do so, she was cast aside with Catharine taking her place. Catharine is the ultimate victim, used by Sebastian and even taken advantage of by a married man. In both cases she is discarded when her function has been served. In the years before his death Sebastian saw a vision of baby sea turtles struggling towards the sea before being devoured by gulls. He saw this scene as representative of the true nature of human relationships. Sebastian attempted to escape the cycle by disappearing into a Buddhist monastery, but Violet didn’t want to lose their lavished lifestyle, so she flung him back into society, and in doing so ensured his final demise.
Kip Williams has cottoned onto the fact that Suddenly Last Summer should not be read as a piece of realist theatre. His use of cameras and projection is a nod to this. He certainly ran the risk of reproducing the fiasco that was The Maids, but thankfully his use of film has a ready justification. To be sure, some people will find it off putting, and there’s no question that it is overused and at times invasive. At other times, it is simply brilliant: we pull away from an extreme close up of Catharine’s eyes to reveal a flashback of her and the disguised Sebastian (Brandon McClelland). The camera pans around, rotating faster as the story becomes more and more horrifying.
Not only does the film and visible camera crew draw attention to the theatricality of the performance, but it also draws attention to the idea of the fractured self. Sebastian obviously struggled to feed his animalistic appetites whilst also presenting a respectable façade to 1930s society; likewise his mother seeks to suppress some elements of his personality while emphasizing other elements. Ultimately, no person has a single, consistent being. The film also directs our attention to Dr Sugar, a character who could easily be over looked in this production, but whose role is crucial, as he significantly remains the only person not willing to consume others in a bid to advance himself. He is the beacon of hope in the play.
But of course, it’s the actors that really make Williams’ lyrical dialogue sing. Our main trio is a sight to behold. The legendary Robyn Nevin reigns supreme as Violet Venable, Sebastian’s ever present mother. Nevin is voluble and unrelenting in her pursuit of the rose coloured image of her son’s homosexuality and death. Engaging as ever, Nevin nuances every syllable, and sets the stage for quality. Mark Leonard Winter as her companion, Dr Cukrowicz, is just as impressive. Winter brings a quiet gravitas to the role of Dr Sugar and provides a sound structure for the coherent and incoherent ramblings of his two leading ladies. Winter is quite simply the Montgomery Clift of the STC stage. And oh! How well he treads the boards. The arrival of Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine, Sebastian’s poor and infatuated cousin, takes the story to a new, disturbing level. Norvill is fast becoming one of Sydney’s brightest, and her performance here is no exception. Norvill plays the hysterical tiredness of an ‘insane’ girl. You can see how exhausted Catharine is, presumably from being moved between asylums where still, no one will believe her. Norvill taps into the rawness of this Hitchcockian heroine; she is constantly compelling.
The play is punctuated by Paula Arundell as Sister Felicity and less successfully by Melita Jurisic (Violet’s nurse), Susan Prior (Mrs Holly, Catharine’s Mother) and Brandon McClelland (Holly’s Brother). Jurisic, Prior and McClelland seemed unable to maintain the suspension of disbelief. All three jarred the dialogue at times, as if unable to transform themselves into their respective characters. Overacting and poor choices proliferated. Arundell, on the other hand, suitably pitched Catharine’s holy carer.
This may not be a production for the theatrical purest, but Williams and the Sydney Theatre Company have attempted to do something different, and to their credit it is thoughtfully done and consistent with the text they’re working with. You’re not going to hit the bull’s eye every time you push the envelope, but they got close enough often enough with this production to make it well worth seeing. Tickets sales have been strong, so if you don’t have one already, you’d probably want to do something about that soon. Suddenly Last Summer is playing at the Sydney Opera house until the 21st of March. For more information see: