NOTE: The following review dates from February 2002 and this production's initial run at the Sheffield Lyceum.
It’s an ominous set. A monolithic steel cylinder stands beneath and just beyond the proscenium arch, while shafts of pristine white light stretch out across the theatre, through torn holes in the structure, as if someone had been at it with an axe.
While you’re mulling quietly over approaches to Tennessee Williams’ symbolism, Michael Grandage’s production of Suddenly Last Summer starts violently, launching parts of the audience from their seats with a sonic explosion. The ruined metal splits open to reveal a triptych depicting a horror-tangled jungle of a garden, carpeted with moss and littered with incongruous red flowers.
Add to Christopher Oram's monumental design some superbly dynamic acting from Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton and you can forgive just about anything.
Williams was himself undergoing psychoanalysis while writing Suddenly Last Summer and knowledge of this has often influenced design and sound score decisions in a production. But here the battle for a kind of truth through an unhinged sense of righteousness and denial is magnified to the nth degree.
As Catharine, Hamilton delivers a heart-stopping, breathy and tremulous performance, her tiny quivering frame loomed over by Rigg’s Mrs Venable, who becomes increasingly malignant and terrifying, her bluster always accompanied by a crescendo of psychotic bird song. Indeed Rigg seems to dominate the stage, even when she’s not on it. That has to be perfect casting.
As Dr Cukrowicz and Sister Felicity, Mark Bazely and Virginia Denham eschew conventionally pure-white portrayals (he clinically, she angelically so) for more darkly ambiguous interpretations, as they listen to Catharine’s “hideous story” of Sebastian, the poet, the chaste and revered son of Mrs Venable.
Sebastian’s death is the rift between them all, and in their memories of him, they must choose to either ignore unsavoury aspects of his life to preserve his dignity or cling to them for the sake of their sanity. Williams’ themes of all-consuming violence and desire within the constraints of societal mores are timeless - if a little tame these days – and his metaphors remain surreal.
While you’re still figuring them all out, the triptych snaps shut, like a giant flytrap, locking the characters into an asylum of steel, and you with them. Stunning.
- Dawn Jessop (reviewed at the Sheffield Lyceum)