Suddenly Last Summer: Tennessee Williams at his shocking best at the Sydney Opera House

My wife, not usually given to superlatives, said after watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Suddenly Last Summer, it was the best play she had ever seen.
I thought back to my theatre-going days in New York City in the late sixties, when I saw Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy; Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming with Vivien Merchant as Ruth; Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come, a Tony Award nominee in 1966, and Man of La Mancha with Richard Kiley as Don Quixote.
Great plays all, but as always, my wife was right. Tennessee William’s self-styled allegory about the rich New Orleans matron, Violet Venable, trying to silence her niece, Catharine Holly, with a lobotomy to prevent her from telling how her son died in Spain, is probably the best drama I have experienced as well.
It is quite an experience, with video shot by three cameras on a giant, sometimes revolving screen, tracking and zooming, providing details and closeups of the main characters, and at one point making the audience gasp with a bird’s-eye view of a truth-serum needle puncturing Catharine’s skin. (Photo above by Brett Boardman: Susan Prior as Mrs Holly, Paula Arundell as the nun, Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine Holly, Robyn Nevin as Mrs Venable and Mark Leonard Winter as Dr Sugar in background) While it enhances the narrative, it doesn’t detract from the cast’s performances. Robyn Nevin is superb as Mrs Venable, deluding herself about her “perfect” son, Sebastian, with a nearly perfect southern accent. Sebastian was a poet who wrote one poem a year.
Stealing the show is Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine, who arrives at the Venable mansion’s lush garden – dark with secrets — accompanied by a nun from the Catholic convalescent home where she’s recovering from the trauma of witnessing Sebastian’s grotesque death. Neurosurgeon Dr Cukrowicz, nicknamed Dr Sugar (after Williams’ psychiatrist), is well played by Mark Leonard Winter, as he questions Catharine to see if she’s a suitable candidate for a lobotomy. It’s autobiographical: Tennessee Williams’ sister, Rose, had a lobotomy; his mother, Edwina, was as domineering as Violet Venable; and the playwright’s sex life resembled Sebastian’s.
Mrs Venable wants the details of Sebastian’s adventures with young male lovers deleted from Catharine’s mind. She says to Dr Sugar: “Cut this hideous story out of her brain.” In John Lahr’s mammoth and magnificent biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Bloomsbury, 2014), he writes: “Suddenly Last Summer was a sort of autobiographical exorcism that worked through Williams’ grief and guilt over his sister, Rose, as well as his anger at Edwina for deciding to allow a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy to be performed on her without informing him in advance … an omission for which Williams never forgave his mother.”
The director, Kip Williams, together with designer Alice Badbidge, chief camera operator Phillip Charles, Lighting Designer Damien Cooper, and Composer Stefan Gregory, have brought a Tennessee Williams play, first performed in 1958 and set in New Orleans, to life in 2015 in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. They do it with video technology and scenery and imagination, but they and the actors pay homage to Tennessee Williams, whose words make the play sing.
In his Memoirs, published in 1975 by Doubleday, Williams wrote: “There are passages in Suddenly Last Summer which are perhaps as well written as anything I’ve done.” I agree, and I also think that if Tennessee Williams were still alive, he would have loved the STC production of his play, for both his words and the pictures.
He tells the story in the book, of how he made the deal for the movie version of Suddenly Last Summer, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, with Sam Spiegel, the famous producer. Spiegel asked how much Williams wanted for the film rights. The playwright said: “How about fifty grand plus 20 per cent of the profits? Sam said: ‘It’s a deal,’ and it was, and the profits were as good as the film was bad – that figures.”
But he added, and I think this is why he would have loved seeing the STC production: “How films have changed! – for the better. They have outstripped the theatre in honesty, adventure, and technique, despite the fall of Big studios with their star system. Or possibly because of it?”
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(Photo above by Brett Boardman)
Despite its horrific themes, Suddenly Last Summer has attracted myriad raves ever since its opening night Off-Broadway in 1958. The New Yorker critic, Wolcott Gibbs, called it “an impressive and genuinely shocking play,” while the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson said it was “an exercise in the necromancy of writing … a superb achievement.”
After its opening in Sydney last month, the praise was almost unanimous on Twitter published on the STC website. Author Benjamin Law tweeted: “Saw this last night. Glorious stuff.” And Law retweeted a link to the Sydney Morning Herald critic Jason Blake’s review of the play in which Blake said: “If Suddenly Last Summer were any more like a movie, the Sydney Theatre Company would have to sell popcorn.” http://bit.ly/1DQGK8R
The actress Jacqueline McKenzie tweeted: “THRILLING! T.Williams would’ve been enthralled. Audacious without ego. Sublime acting. Bravo Kip!” The editor of The Drum, the ABC’s opinion and news analysis website, Chip Rolley, chimed in: “Don’t know what it is about @SydneyTheatreCo, but they do Tennessee Williams extraordinarily well. Go see Suddenly Last Summer” And Channel Ten’s long-time entertainment reporter, Angela Bishop, tweeted: “Extraordinary STC prod of Suddenly Last Summer last night. In crowd @Billy_Connolly @KathyLette & a sea of Bishops: Julie, Bronwyn & me.”
On a personal note, I only discovered on reading John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams that he lived across the street from me in the late sixties in New York. He and his secretary and companion at the time had a thirty-third floor penthouse on 15 West 72nd Street next to the famous Dakota building where John Lennon was shot. I lived on the top floor of a fourth-floor walkup, teaching in Harlem and earning a lot less than Mr Williams. Still, it would have been nice to meet him.
His lifestyle was a bit different than mine. John Lahr described a typical day in the life of Tennessee in the late sixties when his secretary Bill Glavin ushered him through his Stoned Age: “Glavin accompanied Williams on his daily Manhattan walkabout – to his analyst’s office, to see Dr Feelgood, to swim at the Y, to lunch at L’Escargot, to the previews of Gnadiges Fraulein [a Williams play] at the Longacre, where they sat in a box and laughed uproariously, and where the producer, Charles Bowden, caught them in the men’s room ‘shooting up with Dr Feelgood’s amphetamines’.” Dr Feelgood was the nickname of a New York GP, Dr Max Jacobson, well known for providing speed to the rich and famous, including President John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley.
With the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney tonight, I thought I should end this post with a quote from Williams in Lahr’s biography about his Memoirs, the book which brought him out of the closet and answered his critics in the gay community: “The book can only be successful if it is a work of total and personally unsparing honesty about myself and by myself … The book when finished will not be ‘sensational’ in a bad way but in a good one.” But Lahr mentions one “droll critic” who describes Williams’ Memoirs like this: “If he hasn’t exactly opened his heart, he has opened his fly.”
FOOTNOTE: If you want to see Suddenly Last Summer at the Opera House, there is limited seat availability with the season ending on March 21. For last minute ticket releases on the day, call the Sydney Opera House Box Office on (02) 9250 7777. There are also standing room tickets for $35 each – only available at the Box Office on that same number. The play lasts 90 minutes and there is no interval, but it moves along quickly if you don’t mind standing!

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