Summer and Smoke

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Almeida, but watching Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, I was reminded why I love this north London theatre. This powerful, dreamlike production couldn’t have been bettered.

Young John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) returns to his father’s house, next door to Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran). Alma, conceived by Williams to represent the spirit (her name means ‘soul’ in Spanish, as she continually tells us), is in love with John, a doctor, who clearly represents the body, carrying on an affair with a local girl and drinking and carousing into the small hours. I’ve sometimes found Williams to be a bit too heavy-handed and literal in his symbolism, but the expressionistic nature of this production removes any hint of this, instead emphasising Alma’s state of mind with a row of pianos playing discordant notes. Patsy Ferran has gone from strength to strength since her West End debut in Blithe Spirit a few years ago; she is a tremendous actress and is perfect as Alma. Matthew Needham is also superb as John, and the two have excellent chemistry; their scenes together are full of tension. Most of the other actors play more than one character; Forbes Masson, for example, plays both Alma’s father and John’s, while Nancy Crane portrays Alma’s mentally disturbed mother and a local woman.

The intensity of the scenes between the main couple is balanced with welcome small-town social comedy, most particularly in the scene of the club meeting where a would-be writer threatens to read his lengthy epic. These scenes emphasise that Alma and John do not exist in a vacuum, and allows us a glimpse into Alma’s full, but not necessarily fulfilling, social life.

The play takes an unexpected and memorable turn towards the end, which has a profound effect on both protagonists and leaves the audience speechless. It’s early days, but this looks like being one of my highlights of the year.

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Something Unspoken / Suddenly Last Summer

I went to see this Tennessee Williams double bill at RADA, performed by students in the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre. The two plays were originally performed together, opening in 1958 as a two-part production entitled Garden District.

The first piece, Something Unspoken, is one I’ve seen before and is about a woman and her companion and their complex relationship. Featuring only two actors, it was very well performed.

The other play, Suddenly Last Summer, is a longer, more complex tale. Mrs Venable’s son  Sebastian died tragically last summer, but she refuses to believe her niece’s (who was with him in Spain) account of events. Catharine is brought to her aunt’s home from the asylum in which she is staying in order to go over things one last time. Despite the threat of a longer incarceration hanging over her, she continues to insist on the truth of her story.

It’s a powerful piece with some very strong performances and familiar Williams themes: the relationship between mothers and sons, mental illness, homosexuality. A memorable production by the students at RADA.

A Time for Departure

A Time for Departure was a series of three short Tennessee Williams plays, directed by Séamus Newham and performed at Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead. The Case of the Crushed Petunias (1941) is an amusing if dated piece about a spinster whose life is transformed by a strange man who has attacked her petunias. In Our Profession (1938) is a funny short play about an actress desperate to catch a husband, who tries out her wiles on two different men. Finally, Summer at the Lake is a poignant piece set in the Deep South, where a young teenage boy in despair sees only one way out.

The trio of plays were well acted and I enjoyed my visit to this lovely little theatre.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Whatever else you might say about Tennessee Williams, his plays have the best titles. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof isn’t a play I’m familiar with, but the prospect of a Young Vic production in the West End was too good to pass up.

Directed by Benedict Andrews, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner stars Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell as Maggie and Brick, a troubled couple struggling to relate to one another and battling their demons. Maggie wants a baby, but Brick won’t touch her: he steeps himself in whisky to try to cope with his own feelings over the death of his friend Skipper, and as the play goes on we learn that there was more to their friendship than meets the eye.

The play has attracted some very mixed reviews, but I honestly enjoyed it, and the near three-hour running time flew by. I found Miller convincing as Maggie, and O’Connell even more so as Brick, his body language saying a great deal. It’s true there’s nudity in the play, but I found it appropriate to the production: we see Brick naked in the shower, nursing a damaged leg, at the beginning of the play and this emphasises his physicality, his past as a professional footballer and his awareness that he is getting older. Similarly, Miller’s nudity shows how Maggie is willing to use her body to get what she wants.

The strongest scenes are those featuring Maggie and Brick, but dramatic tension is added with the entrance of family patriarch Big Daddy (an excellent Colm Meaney) and his overbearing wife, their other son and daughter-in-law and their clutch of children. This intimate domestic drama becomes a family saga as there is the threat that the family estate will be left to the larger family, and Big Daddy learns of his approaching death from cancer.

I wasn’t sure about the bare gold set, which would have looked fine in the Young Vic itself but seemed a bit out of place in the ornate Apollo. The production as a whole, though, held my attention and it’s one that I’m glad I’ve seen.

The Glass Menagerie

It’s strange, but I completely loved The Glass Menagerie. It’s strange because I studied this play for A Level and absolutely hated it. My experience left me with a lasting dislike of Tennessee Williams that only the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire was able to fully expel; and yet I fell in love with John Tiffany’s production at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Whether this is because of the way my own personality has developed in the intervening period, because Menagerie is a play you have to see to appreciate, or because of the excellence of this particular production, I can’t say; but already it’s a contender to be among my top plays of the year.

Loosely autobiographical, it sees the narrator, Tom, looking back on his life with his mother and sister. His mother, Amanda, is a former Southern belle in the best Williams tradition; his sister, Laura, is shy and quiet, with a disability as the result of a past illness and few interests beside her glass animals: her “glass menagerie”. Amanda wants nothing more than to get Laura married off, and nags Tom to bring home a ” nice young man” for dinner. The resulting young man, Jim, seems promising but ultimately ends up breaking Laura’s heart.

The play takes on the quality of a dream, with an expressionistic set by Bob Crowley including a staircase ascending into nowhere. All four actors are wonderful in their respective roles: Michael Esper as Tom, Cherry Jones as Amanda, Brian J. Smith as Jim and especially Kate O’Flynn as Laura. Its wonderful and heartbreaking to see her blossom in the young man’s company; heartbreaking because you know what is going to happen. When I originally studied the play, one of the things I remember disliking about it was its supposed simplicity and heavy-handed metaphor. Its only now that I can see that it’s not simple at all, but complex and delicate as Laura’s glass figures.

This production is a relevation: profound and perfectly balanced. I loved it.

Wild At Heart

Another visit to the Pentameters Theatre beckoned in order to see another of their Tennessee Williams productions. Directed by Seamus Newham, this production of Wild At Heart encompassed four short plays: At Liberty (1939), Mr Paradise (1941), Hello From Bertha (1946) and Talk To Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen (1952).

At Liberty was a moving exploration of a mother-daughter relationship, while Mr Paradise was an amusing tale of a lapsed poet tracked down by an enthusiastic young fan. Hello From Bertha was a powerful scene set in a St. Louis brothel, while Talk To Me… closed the show with a quiet, contemplative exploration of a failing relationship. Taken altogether, the evening was a rich and engrossing one.

Confessional

This adaptation of a 1970 Tennessee Williams play, originally set in 1950s California, has been written by Jack Silver and transports the action to modern-day Southend. The Little space at the Southwark Playhouse has been transformed into a working pub: I bought a drink from the bar before I sat down, from a barman who proves to be one of the characters.

Confessional follows a group of characters over the course of one night in a run-down bar. The company, Tramp, uses an unusual acting style in which lines are memorised but delivery and blocking are improvised each night: this makes for an exceptionally naturalistic evening, and I felt that I was really in a pub eavesdropping on the locals. I thought the production was excellent, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the company comes up with next.