Thursday, February 19, 2015


Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Kip Williams. Designed by Alice Babidge. Composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory.

Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre. Sydney Opera House.

February 13 - March 21 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Robyn Nevin as Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer. Photo by Brett Boardman

At the close of Kip William’s intriguing production of Tennessee Williams’s harrowing psychological drama, Suddenly Last Summer, Doctor Cukrowicz says “ I think that we should consider the fact that she might be telling the truth.”  “she” refers to Catharine Venables (Eryn Jean Norvill), the institutionalized neice of wealthy Southern American matriarch, Mrs. Venables (Robyn Nevin), who has engaged Sucrowitz (Mark Leonard Winter) to assess her neice for a lobotomy to prevent her from telling lies about her deceased son, poet Sebastian Venables. In return for his agreement to perform the lobotomy, Sucrowitz would receive a handsome endowment.
Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine and Robyn Nevin
as Mrs. Venable. Photo by Brett Boardmann
Sucrowitz’s search for the truth of what occurred during Sebastian’s last summer vacation with Catharine lies at the very heart of Williams’s tortured quest for the truth of his own existence. Williams’s writing writhes with the torment of self-appraisal. His characters disguise truth behind a veneer of prevarication. Domineering Mrs. Venable contains the unbearable pain of a mother whose suffocating love for her son has driven him to the deep despair of denial of his talent and his homosexuality. Catharine suppresses the memory of the truth of Sebastian’s horrific death. Melita Jurisic’s Miss Foxhill, Mrs Venable’s maid, grovels in subservient acquiescence. Within the pain of fearful experience hides the truth of Foxhill’s sad life. Private greed is  revealed in  the desperate appeal by Catharine’s mother, Mrs. Holly (Susan Prior) and brother, George (Brandon McLelland to ensure that Mrs. Venable’s willis in their favour.) Only Catharine’s ward, Sister Felicity appears truly honest in her motive to supervise Catharine during her visit to Sebastian’s luxurious garden, opulently designed by Alice Babidge.

The action of the play takes place in the luxurious garden of Mrs. Venable’s Southern estate.  Originally titled Garden of Deceit, Williams’s setting for Suddenly Last Summer within the rich foliage of the densely grown garden hides the terrible truth that Catharine has concealed. Motive is cloaked in deceit. Truth is the first casualty of human behaviour. And it is human behaviour that has prompted director Williams to offer a radical and ingenious device to reveal the truths that Tennessee Williams brings to the surface in Suddenly Last Summer. On a large white wall that traverses the proscenium, the action of much of the play is projected as the actors are filmed enacting the drama on the set. A revolve reveals the garden as three cameras follow the action which continues to be projected upon the revolved screen at the back of the stage. Film and live theatre provoke a zoom in and out effect on the audience’s sensibility. Projected close-ups probe the truth behind the character’s magnified appearance on the screen or within the mind of the chacter, live upon the stge. In a cast as consummate as the actors upon this stage, it offers a powerful insight into the truthful effect of the doctor’s treatment and use of hypnosis to draw out Catharine’s account of the events of the last summer.  As the revolve turns to reveal the actors upon the set, they become diminished by the new reality, insects amongst the leaves , significantly acting out their insignificant lives. Williams’s dialogue cuts through the artifice, incisive in its perception of motive, acerbic in its judgement of hypocrisy. Director Williams’s inventive use of filmic technique to accentuate character combined with playwright William’s acute observation of character, drawn from experience, and the outstanding performances of the cast make this a powerful, riveting and provocative experience for the audience. The two-act drama has been condensed into one act, played through for ninety minutes without an interval, heightenting the tension and fully engaging the audience’s involvement.
Robyn Nevin, Melita Jurisic as Miss Foxhill, Susan Prior as Mrs. Holly and Paula Arundell as Sister felicity. Photo by Brett Boardmann
Although powerfully effective in magnifying character and  motive and drawing us irrevocably into the psychology of each character’s words and action, the use of film occasionally distracts, drawing us from the character to the ingenuity of the technique. At times, such as during a conversation between the doctor and Catharine, hidden from view, far stage right against the flyropes, while the discourse is projected upon the large screen at the back of the stage, Williams intentionally introduces the split focus of live theatre and film, while still revealing the live actors far to the right of the stage. It is a rare and very occasional frustration, almost verging on Brechtian Alienation Effect, as is the presence upon the stage of the camera operators. Although dressed in black, their presence creates at times distraction, and might have been more effective had they adopted the Bunraku device of hooded see-through black material to remove the distraction of the faces.
Susan Prior as Mrs. Holly, Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine and Brandon McClelland as George Holly.
Photography by Brett Boardmann

Ultimately, the true power of this production rests with the quality of its cast. Williams, the director, has done full justice to Williams, the playwright. Williams is renowned for his remarkable observation of women. One merely has to think of Blanche DuBoit in A Streetcar Named Desire or Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. In Suddenly Last Summer, Williams has drawn on his mother and sister, who underwent a lobotomy, encouraged by the mother and resisted by Tennessee Williams’s father. In Robyn Nevin, director Williams has cast the ideal Australian grand veteran of the theatre to play the steely, privately tortured, bitter and vindictive mother, consumed by a personal guilt that a stroke had prevented her from taking her son on his last summer vacation, as she had done with obsessive, possessive delight for so many summers before. Nevin is brilliant, never swaying from a rigidly controlled state of emotion until that final    expression of sheer horrifying realization of the consequences of her domination of her only son. Nevin’s performance is counterpoised by Norvill’s  astounding portrayal of the fragile, confused and manipulated Catharine. And yet in a moment of flirtatious will with the doctor, Norvill leaves the audience in no doubt that there is an element of wilful intent that brings true motive into question. Norvill is a shining star of the Australian stage, and this performance again attests to her versatility, emotional depth and striking intelligence in the various roles that she has played for the Sydney Theatre Company. To see Nevin and Norvill on the same stage in Tennessee Williams’s outstanding roles for the younger and older woman is a sheer delight, and one that I would recommend all theatre lovers to witness.
Melita Jurisic as Miss Foxhill. Robyn Nevin as Mrs. Venable. Photography by Brett Boardmann
Kip Williams has taken risks with his interpretation and use of film and live theatre to explore Tennessee Williams’s deeply disturbing insights into human behaviour and attitude. However, one senses that he has never veered from a deep respect for the playwright and his text, and with a team that have shared the passion and the insight to bring  the rarely performed Suddenly Last Summer to the stage in a production that is contemporary, absorbing, dynamic and true. If there is a ticket left, then I suggest you rush to get one before this season is sure to sell out.

Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine. Paula Arundell as Sister felicity. Photo by Brett Boardmann