Sydney Theatre Company’s Suddenly Last Summer – a theatre review by Deb Meyer

March 1, 2015 by Deb Meyer
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In Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams poses the search for truth in a world half real and half surreal.


Mark Leonard Winter, Robyn Nevin and Eryn Jean Norvill

Mark Leonard Winter, Robyn Nevin and Eryn Jean Norvill

Art and life are blurred, perspectives questioned and secrets uncovered in the heightened reality of Williams’ mysterious drama.

In this deeply personal work, the poet at the heart of the play, Sebastian Venable, is shrouded in mystery and never seen in the play. Like the playwright himself, Sebastian is an outsider with a troubled life, hiding from the homophobic society of his times – 1930’s middle America, with Williams writing the play in 1958.

The play centres around Sebastian’s mysterious death during the summer of the past year, while on holiday with his mentally unstable cousin Catherine, and his controlling mothers’ attempt to unravel the truth. In protecting her son’s life work and image, Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin) hires the services of a neurosurgeon (Mark Leonard Winter) to assess Catherine’s (Eryn Jean Norvill) version of the story, in the hope he will agree to perform a lobotomy to keep her quiet. The character of Catherine is based on Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose, who was lobotomised in 1943 to specifically ‘shut her up’ – a practice all too common during that time.

Another Williams – Sydney Theatre Company’s resident director Kip Williams, has created a masterful production, using a hybrid of both stage and film in bringing Tennessee’s dream-like setting and characters to life.

The cast of Suddenly Last Summer

The cast of Suddenly Last Summer

Clever use of film techniques are employed to explore concepts of space, light and shadow, perspectives and fractured mental states. Close ups of the actors are a wonderful addition during heightened moments of tension and create a unique experience for the audience. The first scene (half an hour) is almost entirely on the large screen, with the actors being filmed live behind the screen as they walk around the garden setting of Violet Venable.

Some audience members may feel too removed from the actors, but I welcome any opportunity to see the wonderful Robyn Nevin acting up close! Her Violet brims with a devoted mothers’ profound love and grief, a desperation to hold onto her son’s idealised image, as well as a vicious, opportunistic control of all those around her.

The darkness of Nevin’s complex character contrasts with the ironic clarity and light of the mentally frail Catherine – on temporary leave from a psychiatric asylum, where she’s deemed insane. Played with great depth and sensitivity by Eryn Jean Norvill, we feel tremendous sorrow for her inner torture – kept under the repressive hand of her Protestant aunt, yet yearning for the release of her burgeoning sexuality and to speak her truth.

The other actors in the production complete a strong ensemble, including Mark Leonard Winter, Paula Arundell, Melita Jurisic, Brandon McClelland and Susan Prior, who give assured performances with pitch perfect accents, thanks to voice coach Charmian Gradwell.

The technical crew is equally strong. The live camera work is mesmerising and orchestrated superbly by the camera operator Phillips Charles. Alice Babidge’s set design, using an array of tropical plants through which the actors weave their way on stage and film, captures well the play’s dream-like setting. Original music by accomplished composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory is a unifying element and, along with effective lighting by Damien Cooper, intensifies the plays heightened universe.

This is a truly collaborative production by an imaginative and bold director and an ensemble of talented actors and skilful technicians at the height of their game. If you’ve never seen a Williams’ production (either by Tennessee or Kip), or even if you have, this is certainly one not to be missed.

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams

Sydney Theatre Company

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Directed by Kip Williams

Until March 21, 2015

Duration: 1hr 30mins (no interval)

Sydney Opera House Box Office (02) 9250 7777

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