Saturday, February 21, 2015

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams

Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine Holly

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams.  Directed by Kip Williams.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House, the Drama Theatre, February 13 - March 21, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 21

The play about whether Catherine needs brain surgery because she ‘babbles’, or is the only one who knows the truth, is one of Tennessee Williams’ enduring works for theatre.  In his own time he experimented with staging techniques, famously in The Glass Menagerie where Tom at times removes himself from the action and becomes a narrator, while text signs remind us of people’s misconceptions – such as the hopeful “Blue Roses” for the ill-health condition ‘pleurosis’.

Kip Williams, perhaps channelling his namesake, has taken this production of Suddenly Last Summer far beyond the standard Brechtian distancing approach into the modern world of live video – and has done a brilliant job with his design team, Alice Babidge (Designer), Damien Cooper (Lighting), Stefan Gregory (Composer and Sound) and Shane Johnson (Audio-Visual Consultant).

For many years I have found myself critical of the use of multi-media as it became de rigeur – often being used as an unnecessary adjunct to the drama, merely because it had become the fashion.  This production proves that media on stage has grown up at last from its very early days (even back as far as Erwin Piscator’s political theatre in 1920s Germany).

An underlying but crucial theme of Suddenly Last Summer is revealed when the young woman under attack from her aunt, her mother, her brother, her nurse from St Mary’s Psychiatric Hospital, and, she suspects, from the specialist doctor who must decide if she should have a lobotomy, bursts out that she knows she is ‘being watched’.  Here’s a theme which, of course, has nowadays become a major political issue called ‘privacy’, and we all feel the threat of ‘surveillance’.

Using live video in this production, everyone on stage is being watched – by us, in exquisite close-up when we need to see exactly how a character is feeling, or to judge a character’s motivation.  Combined with a full-stage revolve, we are able to see every nuance throughout the extensive semi-tropical, almost primeval, garden in a way that would normally be impossible in a large conventional proscenium theatre. 

In fact, for perhaps the first time in my experience, the far too wide letter-box shape of the Drama Theatre stage has been used to the advantage of the play.

The result is absolutely rivetting.  Whatever we might think of the psychological ideas of Tennessee Williams’ era, which this play criticises in any case, the technique used by Kip Williams exposes the awful attitudes and destructive behaviours of Sebastian Venable (Brandon McClelland), his mother Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin), his dead father’s sister Grace Holly (Susan Prior), and his cousins George Holly (also Brandon McClelland) and the central young woman Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill).

Including Mark Leonard Winter as Dr Cukrowicz (or ‘Sugar’ in translation), Paula Arundell as Sister Felicity and Melita Jurisic as Violet’s servant Miss Foxhill, the whole cast expertly worked in both stage and film method.  The only (minor) technical fault was that the good doctor’s mic lead showed above his collar in shots from behind. 

If any special praise should be given, beyond the high praise all deserved, it has to be for Eryn Jean Norvill’s tour de force as Catherine.  Her performance, and the whole production, should be watched for its clarity of purpose on the part of the Sydney Theatre team and of the author, Tennessee Williams.  And, as usual, the STC program is a very worthwhile read in itself.

Grace Holly (Susan Prior), her son George Holly (Brandon McClelland) and her daughter Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill)
 All photos by Brett Boardman
Mark Leonard Winter as Dr Cukrowicz (watching live on screen), Paula Arundell as Sister Felicity and Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine Holly

Melita Jurisic as Violet’s servant Miss Foxhill with Robyn Nevin as Violet Venable

Two views of Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin)

Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin) being watched by Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill) on live camera

Three perspectives on Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill)

Catherine Holly in a different mood (Eryn Jean Norvill)

Violet Venable and Miss Foxhill (Robyn Nevin and Melita Jurisic)

Watching as Catherine tells the truth:
Melita Jurisic, Susan Prior and Paula Arundell as Miss Foxhill, Grace Holly and Sister Felicity
with Robyn Nevin (foreground) as Violet Venable