Suddenly Last Summer at the Comedy Theatre

Suddenly Last Summer must have seemed shocking in 1958, when Tennessee Williams wrote it, and indeed it can still bring gasps from today s audiences. It s an over-the-top play and benefits from an over-the-top production - which it certainly receives here. Tim Hatley s set, a glorious feat of rococo curls, is eye-opening and Sean Mathias s direction equally ornate. Even clichés such as dry ice somehow seem right here.

For all the play s over-the-topness, the plot is a simple one. Mrs Venable believes that her niece Catharine is responsible for the death of her beloved son, Sebastian. To exact her revenge, she calls in a psychiatrist, Dr Cukrowitz, in an attempt to have Catharine committed to the local asylum and be subjected to a lobotomy. During the course of the play, the hideous manner of Sebastian s death is revealed. The story moves to its grisly conclusion like a Greek tragedy, and like a Greek tragedy, people are made to suffer for past sins.

If the sets are redolent of American exoticism, the accents certainly aren t. One of the problems of performing American plays in this country is that the accents are so hard to do. This production produces an extraordinary mélange of voices, where every character seems to have picked a particular regional accent, with occasional lapses into standard English effecting a degree of uniformity.

Accents aside, the cast appears to relish the meaty roles that Williams has provided. Particularly good is Rachel Weisz s Catharine, who brings a degree of credibility to a difficult part. For the play to work, the audience has to be left guessing whether Catherine is truly insane and Weisz s performance walks the tightrope between madness and lucidity well. This part demonstrates that Weisz is capable of performances of great subtlety. In particular, her final, terrible monologue is captivating.

Not quite so successful is Sheila Gish s Mrs Venable whose planned revenge on Catharine is motivated by the strong feelings for her son. While Gish s performance is suitably spiteful, there is no sense of her grief - this performance is too one-dimensional.

It s easy to criticise Williams s play as a piece of Southern Grand Guignol that is slightly passé, but this type of theatre still has its adherents. Sure, it s slightly self-indulgent, but it remains a burst of intense and powerful drama.

Maxwell Cooter

Suddenly Last Summer opened at the Comedy Theatre 14 April 1999 and continues until 17 July 1999.