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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Suddenly Last Summer
Albery Theatre, Spring-Summer 2004

Suddenly Last Summer is not Tennessee Williams at the absolute top of his form, but second-tier Williams can still be more exciting, more rich in theatrical poetry and high drama than most other dramatists of the past century at their best.

You come out of the play high on the lushness of his language, high on the operatic passions of his characters, and perhaps giggling a bit at the excesses of bizarre plot and metaphor in which he placed all this richness.

This 1958 ninety-minute play (and incidentally, it says something - I'm not sure what - that what was originally part of a double bill is now being presented as the whole evening on its own) certainly represents Williams at his most unabashedly Southern Gothic.

A rich woman is determined to have her niece declared insane and lobotomised because the story the girl tells about events last summer with the dowager's son is so horrible that the old lady would rather commit an atrocity than admit it might be true.

One of the inherent weaknesses of the play is that that horrible story is alluded to so many times that when we finally hear it there is inevitably a bit of an anticlimax, even though it tells of the man being killed and eaten by a mob of third-world beggars.

That is particularly true in Michael Grandage's current production where, oddly, the unmistakable homosexual subtext - cannibalism was a recurring metaphor in Williams' private code - is repressed. (Even the heavily censored 1958 film managed to imply it more clearly.) So the full extent of what the mother is in denial about is somewhat muted.

Diana Rigg plays the matriarch with a raw energy that will be startling to those who know only Katherine Hepburn's patrician hauteur in the film. Rigg's rich old lady is a street fighter at heart. It's obvious, if never spoken, that she was a poor woman who married into her money, and she barely bothers to disguise the grasping, determined vulgarity that got her where she is.

You can believe that she has known all the truths about her son all along - his fecklessness, his pretense of being an effete poet, his attraction to rough trade - and is choosing to wipe it away simply because she has controlled everything else in her life to make it what she wants.

Rigg dominates the first half of the play, and sets an energy level so high that Victoria Hamilton as her niece has her work cut out for her when she takes centre stage for the long-delayed telling of what happened last summer. And here I have to admit that, at least on press night, Hamilton lost the battle, her aria never quite building to the intensity of horror and poetic beauty that the play wants. 

It is not Hamilton's fault - she gives it all she has, and she has a lot to give. I can imagine that on another night, with a little more sustained energy or a slightly different  audience dynamic or any of the ineffable variables that make up live theatre, the speech and the scene could blaze.

It just didn't quite make it this time but - as I said - Williams at less than full energy is still pretty powerful.

Mark Bazeley is a disappointment as the young doctor. The role is ultimately just a plot device, but it would have been nice if he had been guided to let us see the events and passions of the play affecting him.

Go. Nobody else writes like Williams. Nobody creates such powerful roles for women, and nobody takes language and passion to the dangerous heights he's willing to risk. And if he occasionally lapses into silly excess, it's a small price to pay.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Suddenly Last Summer - Albery 2004