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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Suddenly Last Summer
by Lizzie Loveridge

He admitted this vandal with her tongue for a hatchet.
--- Mrs Venable
Suddenly Last Summer
Diana Rigg as Mrs Venable and Mark Bazeley as Doctor Cukrowicz
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Michael Grandage's production of Suddenly Last Summer storms onto the London stage from Sheffield Theatres. From the moment we see Christopher Oram's massive closed steel drum with rays of light breaking randomly through the apertures where the steel has rusted away, we know that this will be visually something very special. As the play begins, the steel set pivots open to reveal behind the steam the overly lush garden of Mrs Venable's house in New Orleans' Garden Quarter with its balcony and French windows. Giant red poppy like flowers hang from the gnarled and twisted jungle vine, the set as torturous and overbearingly oppressive as Mrs Venable's hold on her family life.

Much of Suddenly Last Summer is autobiographical. Tennessee Williams' own sister Rose was operated on and underwent a pre-frontal lobotomy in 1943. He, like Sebastian, was homosexual. His personal experience must be what makes the writing so exceptionally searing as he deals with issues of mental health and the threat of institutionalisation. The long descriptive passages are mesmerising as Mrs Venable talks about her summers with her attractive poet son. She describes the sea turtle coming ashore to lay its eggs, in a contrasting picture of motherhood. Without maternal protection, the sea turtle hatchlings are picked off by devouring black birds.

Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Venable, using a rasping, husky, Southern voice, her face still beautiful with those amazing cheekbones, her silky hair waved and white, she describes to Doctor Cukrowicz (Mark Bazeley) the loss of her only child, Sebastian. The spider parallels come to the fore as Rigg hunched in a wheel chair like a tarantula sets up the web to ensnare the fly, Catharine Holly (Victoria Hamilton), the poor cousin whom she holds responsible for Sebastian's death. Worse, Catharine has been giving a version as to how Sebastian died and Mrs Venable wants her silenced or at least lobotomised so that she is not believed. Rigg's performance as the controlling, suffocating mother is as tragic as she is malicious. Mrs Venable ruthlessly uses her money to buy accomplices to undermine Catharine. We debate as to whether she knows the truth about her son or whether she is in denial. Possession is what is important to her, "He was MINE", she bellows.

Victoria Hamilton as Catharine is nervous and quivering with emotion. She is a slight figure in a figure hugging black suit, she lacks stability but ultimately not courage as she gulps out her story. "I can't change truth", she says. To the fore, she is under a spotlight as the other figures fade, partially obscured by dry ice. Her family are self seeking and frivolous, her silly mother (Abigail McKern) and her fatuous brother (Patrick Kennedy) are only interested in the Venable inheritance. Mark Bazeley as the doctor is the judge, his verdict will decide who is ultimately right.

This production is very much in the hands of the two women, Rigg and Hamilton. It is more about their excellent performances than it is about New Orleans atmosphere, despite the screeches of the parakeets, but it involves in a powerful way. Adam Cork's score is very dramatic and thunderous. The messages are not subtle or understated, this is 1930s Southern life in full technicolour, gory and painful, as devouring as any spider and if you escape the spider's web, the Venus Fly Trap will get you.

LINK to our review of a production of Tennessee Williams' play in the Berkshires
Suddenly Last Summer

Suddenly Last Summer
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Michael Grandage

Starring: Diana Rigg, Victoria Hamilton
With: Mark Bazeley, Jennifer McEvoy, Patrick Kennedy, Abigail McKern, Virginia Denham
Set Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Music and sound score: Adam Cork
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6621
Booking to 31st July 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th May 2004 performance at the Albery, St Martins Lane London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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