SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER
SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, Ensemble Theatre, 19 May-10 June 2023. Photography by Jaimi Joy: above Andrea Demetriades; below Valerie Bader and Demetriades; below again: Kate Skinner, Belinda Giblin, Socratis Otto, Bader, Remi Hii, Demetriades
Tennessee Williams’ 1957 one-act classic Suddenly Last Summer is droll – until it isn’t. And by then it’s too late: his mesmerising language and captivating cast have worked their magic. One is drawn in for 90 tightly-wrought minutes of lust, misery and redemption. None of which are spoken of in so many words.
Williams was the queen of Southern Gothic whose tortuous relationships with his family – particularly his sister and mother – are depicted in lightly-disguised form across his work. Not that he was as closeted as many still believe, more that he wrote for his times. And also, while a lot autobiographical, he was also creating drama.
What occurred Suddenly Last Summer was the mysterious death in the resort of Cabreza de Lobo of Sebastian, overly-beloved son of Violet Venable (Belinda Giblin). The play opens with birdsong, which is lovely and oddly unsoothing (composer and sound designer Kelly Ryall). Lights go up on a simple set of a semi-transparent curtain decorated with the vegetation of Sebastian’s Louisiana garden. It’s also represented by several stylised, plant-filled terrariums placed in pools of light. (Excellent set and costumes Simone Romaniuk, lighting Morgan Moroney.)
Into the garden come Violet and Dr Sugar (Remy Hii). He listens attentively to a soliloquy lionising and mourning Sebastian. He’s after money to continue his research into the efficacy of lobotomy on mental illness. She knows this and keeps talking.
The underlying cadence is set by her frequent references to “Cabreza de Lobo”, where she was not with Sebastian, and the “Encantardas” (Galapagos), where she was. These words are rhythmically intoned with percussive effect. Both are accentuated by monosyllabic interjections from Dr Sugar and the soundscape and are hypnotically effective.
It’s part of the Williams story that his sister Rose was lobotomised to “cure” her schizophrenia. The result was catastrophic and she was institutionalised for the rest of her life. Here it’s Sebastian’s cousin Catherine (Andrea Demetriades) accompanying him on his annual European sojourn because – Violet rages from her wheelchair – although she had not suffered a stroke, she could not go with him.
Violet blames Catherine for Sebastian’s death and it becomes apparent that while Catherine suffered a breakdown after what she witnessed on the beach at Cabreza de Lobo, Violet’s donation to Dr Sugar is dependent on his lobotomising her niece. For her sanity Catherine wants to tell the truth, and that Violet will not permit.
Catherine is also under threat, albeit thinly disguised, from her brother George (Socratis Otto) and her mother Mrs Holly (Valerie Bader) as they too are dependent on Violet’s good graces. Meanwhile Violet’s stern nurse (Kate Skinner) administers medications and keeps order.
They all, clad in the many shades of white of the obsessively elegant Deep South, move around the lush terrariums as Catherine – shockingly vivid in scarlet – tries to tell her truth. Her compulsively chanted descriptions of bleached white sky, white sand, white skin and white earth are reflected in the family voice – spoken in the mesmeric, drawl of the White South (dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley). All except Violet, that is, whose wayward cadency actually suggests the sudden swerves of a loosely-wrapped sensibility.
Meanwhile, Dr Sugar wrestles with the contradictions of his fervent hope for funding and his growing belief that Catherine is not the mad one. Where this will lead is played out around the terrariums where as Violet shows him, Sebastian’s Venus Flytraps are shrivelling from lack of care. (That the plant is often used in art to symbolise Vagina Dentata is a Williams joke that escaped 1950s censors!)
Thoughtfully directed by Shaun Rennie, the performances are compelling. Whatever she does, Valerie Bader is always a masterclass in understated intelligence, and delivers here. Socratis Otto tries valiantly to be nice but George’s volcanic nature constantly threatens. Remy Hii’s Dr Sugar is remarkable because he is the conflicted medico yet joined the company four days before opening night. As the nurse, Kate Skinner must stamp her mark on fleeting moments and does it well.
Belinda Giblin’s Violet is a febrile creature whose passions long ago went badly awry. She is awfully commanding, even from a wheelchair. Finally, Catherine, as inhabited by Andrea Demetriades, is a powerfully tragic yet optimistic presence. When she relates the dire truth of Cabreza de Lobo it’s impossible to look away. She’s one of our best, if wickedly under-used. Recommended without reservation.