Cameras never lie, revealing the dark heart of Tennessee Williams’ truth drama.
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
February 13, 2015
This 90 minute, one-act play opened off-Broadway in 1958 in a double bill with the 30-minute curtain-raiser, Something Unspoken. Both are underpinned by the physical absence and silence around a major taboo: homosexuality. The second play’s title is the love between two women, together 15 years as “employer” and “personal assistant and secretary” – labels seen on many famous closets.
Similarly obscured, by his doting mother Violet (Robyn Nevin), is the shocking death “suddenly last summer” – think Pier Paolo Pasolini – when Sebastian Venable, travelling in Italy with cousin Catherine (Eryn Jean Norvill) was murdered by rent boys. Violet is so determined to obliterate Catherine’s memory that she’s moved to barbarity: seeking to have Catherine lobotomised by Dr Cukrowicz (Mark Leonard Winter). He, however, first administers the “truth” drug Pentothal and achieves the opposite of what Mrs Venable requires.
The double bill, first titled Garden District, is set in that part of New Orleans. And Suddenly Last Summer takes place in the lush gardens of the Venable mansion – Sebastian’s territory and therefore Violet’s solace. Here she ungraciously receives the doctor and Catherine’s foolishly flapping mother Mrs Holly (Susan Prior) and sullen brother George (Brandon McClelland). All are gathered by Catherine’s apparent descent into madness.
And all is played out before the unblinking gaze of three video cameras, toted by black-clad operators who zero in on the humans like vultures after blood. A white wall conceals the gardens from the audience, the actors disappear through a door in it and instantly their live images are thrown up in shocking close up. Writ large are Mrs Venable’s angry refusal to see the truth, her furious calm betrayed by restless, disobedient limbs; then, three metres high, is the hell of brutal memory that fills Catherine’s mind and blank eyes. All the while, Violet’s maid (Melita Jurisic) watches and waits, as does Sister Felicity (Paula Arundell) the nun charged with keeping Catherine in order.
For the audience, confronted by the juxtaposition of reality and surreality, the choices are simply amazing. In his program notes director Kip Williams writes of the playwright, apropos his admiration for Chekhov’s realism “…Williams believed there were other revelations to be found in inhabiting a heightened reality, a vivid universe – one only a dreamer could believe as being fully real.”
Through the first hidden and then revolved and revealed garden setting (Alice Babidge, design and Damien Cooper, lighting) our (Kip) Williams has achieved that heightened, vivid universe through the cruelly rapacious cameras. It used to be said that the camera never lies, but of course it does: hiding as much as it displays even as it lays bare its own process.
Having criticised Williams in the past for spectacular ideas that proved unworkable, it’s wonderful to see how well thought out and coherent is his overarching concept. Rather than take the easy options of mucking about with the setting, the times or the Southern voices, he has opted to focus on the players through the distancing but magnetic effect of the camera. And he can do this because the actors are all superb – and need to be as the camera offers no respite from doubt or lesser talent.
Suddenly Last Summer is revealed anew as the overpoweringly sad, cruel, sweet-scented, lush, mildewed and rotten thing that Tennessee Williams conjured up more than 50 years ago. Marvellous.
Suddenly Last Summer is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 21.
Read more on Diana Simmonds theatre website Stage Noise.