Review: Suddenly Last Summer (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 18 – Jun 10, 2023
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Valerie Bader, Andrea Demetriades, Belinda Giblin, Remy Hii, Socratis Otto, Kate Skinner
Images by Jaimi Joy

Theatre review

The poeticism of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer tells a story of mystery and obfuscation surrounding the death of a certain Sebastian Venable. Violet, the mother of Sebastian, feigns ignorance and is so determined to suppress the truth that she confines Catharine Holly, her son’s cousin and eyewitness, in a mental institution. It becomes increasingly evident, that if Catharine’s testimony is allowed to emerge, untold harm would come to the Venable name.

The play was first staged in 1958, but the concept of shame, remains very much a part of the human experience. Director Shaun Rennie conveys with great efficacy, the intensity with which these characters have to succumb to the prospect of reputation ruin. There is no questioning the severity of stakes involved, and an unmistakable escalation of dramatic tension through the piece proves deliciously satisfying.

Music and sound by Kelly Ryall is crucial in communicating so unambiguously, the mounting pressure that occurs through the production. Ryall’s renderings of atmosphere bear a surreal quality, that melds beautifully with the lyrical style of Williams’ writing. Lights by Morgan Moroney too, transport us somewhere decidedly dreamlike, perhaps commensurate with the altered states experienced by a heavily medicated Catharine. Set and costumes by Simone Romaniuk are subdued by comparison, but are nonetheless elegant in their depictions of space.

Actor Andrea Demetriades is splendid as Catharine, elastic in her capacity to portray a wide variety of psychological conditions, and mesmerically powerful when required to take the theatre to a fever pitch, at its concluding moments. The deceptive Violet is played by Belinda Giblin, who impresses with a meticulous approach to her character’s obscured complexities. Remy Hii as Dr. Cukrowicz is memorable for introducing an austerity to the health professional’s ethically suspect actions. The ephemeral essence of American Southern-ness is not always represented perfectly in the show, but Valerie Bader, Socratis Otto and Kate Skinner, who although play auxiliary parts, are all marvellously adept at creating for us, that very beguiling and distinct flavour.

Tennessee Williams was prohibited from living a completely authentic life. His queerness was outlawed, and in Suddenly Last Summer we see how that homophobia had manifested, within the queer artist’s mind. The play makes statements about a kind of self-hatred that we are prone to acquire, as a result of persistent and pervasive gaslighting. It also functions as a valuable historical artefact, in which a queer artist is only able to occupy space in his own work, by inflicting on himself the same exhaustive denigration, made obligatory by dominant forces of those times. Things do change, but in Suddenly Last Summer, the appalling way we treat the marginalised, only seems to turn increasingly grim with time.