Review: Suddenly Last Summer (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 9 – Mar 21, 2015
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Paula Arundell, Melita Jurisic, Brandon McClelland, Robyn Nevin, Eryn Jean Norvill, Susan Prior, Mark Leonard Winter
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
The very nature of trauma is dramatic. It disrupts the heart and mind, and leaves in its wake, disorientation and damage. To repair and to move on, fragmented pieces must first be assembled so that a sense of narrative and coherence can be found. The business of theatre involves storytelling, but it also involves a representation and expression of the human condition. At its best, art communicates something that is deep, but also universal. We want to be able to connect on some meaningful level, whether obtuse or simple. Like psychotherapy and other healing processes, theatre can often be difficult and confusing, but what matters is that artists and audiences emerge with something of value, and perhaps something new.

More than half a century has past since Tennesse Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer first appeared off Broadway, but its ideas remain seductive, and his words have proven themselves to be eternally sublime. Scripts in the theatrical canon are timeless because they are of themselves exceptional, or are able to initiate something extraordinary. Williams’ brilliant work appearing on any stage today will spark debates on the degree to which a new interpretation should stray from the predictable. There will always be purists who prefer faithful renditions that acknowledge the perfection of what is already established on paper, and then others would applaud daring departures that take the text to unexpected realms. Kip Williams’ production places three video cameras on stage with his cast. The revolving stage contains a plain cyclorama that doubles as a screen, so that multiple perspectives of the same stage moment can be offered. The show opens with just the back of the screen in view, and the first scene is projected onto that backdrop so that we can only see a movie sized projection of the performance. The stage then turns to reveal its other side where the actors and set are situated. The projection now continues on the front of the backdrop as the action takes place right before it. The camera operators do not hide from our sight, and although all its design harks back to 1937, our experience is a thoroughly modern one.

The actors portray characters with a sense of nostalgic accuracy, but there is no conventional theatrical experience to indulge in. Our eyes are constantly being pulled away from one image to another, and yet another. We are never allowed to focus too long on any dramatic moment. The work distracts us from itself, and we become frustrated and anxious, like the disturbed people we are studying. The concept of the stage is redefined by the use of video in Suddenly Last Summer. Surely, what we see in the theatre constitutes the performing space, but if our eyes are being manipulated by technology so that we are exposed to something strange, then space takes on different form and notion. If all we can see in the 544-seater is a needle piercing into the leading lady’s arm, then something magical has happened on that stage. Similarly, if a man runs off stage but appears to continue running up the fly tower on screen, then the confines of the proscenium can be seen to have vanished. It is certainly experimental work, and with everything that is unusual, we react first with bewilderment, and if our mental capacities are able to process beyond the immediate, then perhaps the work has achieved interesting intellectual effects. When the director’s work is good, it is because he is immensely inventive, but when bad, it is for the same reason.

Less ambiguous is the quality of performance from Eryn Jean Norvill, phenomenal in the role of Catharine. Through madness and fear, the most extravagant drama can materialise, and Norvill is stunningly uninhibited with the level of emotional and visceral intensity she achieves. Williams’ poetry is delivered through her voice as though singing the most sumptuous, yet tragic, of arias. Whether observing her in the flesh or through the lens, her star quality is undeniable, and it is clear that without her heartbreaking portrayal of a woman in agony, the production would not be remembered for much more than its formalistic inventions. Also captivating is Robyn Nevin, whose regal presence is a perfect match for the severe and menacing matriarch, Mrs Venable. The veteran actor’s portrayal is authentic and hugely engaging, which probably explains the camera’s frequent focus on her, even at moments when she is not taking centre stage. Nevin’s “reaction shots” are beautifully done, but a tricky element that can sometimes diminish the effect of what is actually unfolding in the plot.

Suddenly Last Summer has an astonishing story to tell, with exciting themes that would interest any audience, but the playwright’s efforts come dangerously close to being subsumed by the methods in which his story is told. The unorthodox staging eclipses the text itself. There is so much to discuss and think about when the curtains fall, but what takes precedence is the director’s orchestration of proceedings, which seem to be much more concerned with structure, rather than content. Of course, we should not prioritise the writer’s voice over the director’s simply because the play is well-known, but human impulse wants to revel in narratives, and any deprivation of that enjoyment will come up against resistance. Luckily, when the shock of the new fades away, we discover that it is the immortal soul of a classic tale that endures, and suddenly, last night’s turmoil is distilled and the essence left behind is the memory of Mr Tennessee Williams’ unparalleled legacy.