Like a dream: STC’s Suddenly Last Summer

This is the third Tennessee Williams production I’ve seen inside of five months, following Eamon Flack’s lyrical and haunting production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir, and the NTLive presentation of Benedict AndrewsA Streetcar Named Desire for the Young Vic. Rather than saturating the theatrical landscape, these plays have a way of opening up and revealing a personal system of inner refraction in Tennessee Williams’ work, an autobiographical repertory company of characters who shift and morph from play to play but are always present. In Suddenly Last Summer, directed by  Kip Williams for the Sydney Theatre Company, we see many echoes with The Glass Menagerie and shades of A Streetcar Named Desire, but here they are shaped into a new and compelling play which premiered in 1958.

Suddenly Last Summer is the story of ruthless matriarch Violet Venable and her battle of wits with her niece Catherine, the sole witness to the violent and shocking death of Violet’s son. Thrown between these two women is neurosurgeon and quasi-psychiatrist Doctor Cukrowicz, a man charged with discerning fact from fabrication if he is to rightly treat Catherine as her aunt wishes: with a lobotomy. In Kip Williams’ production, a live-video feed is projected upon a long white wall in a curiously affecting mix of the disciplines of cinema and theatre, in an attempt to place us, the audience, inside the story like we have never been before. It’s not a new technique, incorporating live video into theatre, but rather one that has been circulating around the theatre scene for a number of years, but here it perhaps receives its most compelling and persuasive argument for its beneficial use yet.
Alice Babidge’s set of an indoor jungle greenhouse is arranged around a central table, and is backed by a wide white wall which doubles as a screen. Situated on a revolve, the first third of the play is played in behind the wall – that is, the outside of the wall faces the audience, becoming a screen – as the action takes place behind it, captured by a constantly-moving Steadicam. Following Violet’s opening scene with the Doctor, the set spins around the reveal the greenhouse, and we meet Catherine, Violet’s niece. Here, the video-feed is projected onto the wall behind the actors, giving an eerie sense of voyeurism as characters gaze out at others from their projected image on the wall, even if they are not looking at them directly, in person, on stage. It’s a curious effect, and Kip Williams’ blocking goes some way to accommodating this and making it effective, placing the actors in the direct view of at least one camera at all times. However, when Catherine starts to tell her story and the set revolves back around to its first position, the wall facing the audience, the spiralling tension is matched with an constantly tightening close-up shot of Catherine until we focus on her eyes, magnified a hundredfold on the wall in front of us, in disconcertingly invasive extreme close up. Gradually the shot widens, and we find ourselves in a darkened liminal space, the space of Catherine’s story, inhabited by her and the Doctor, a ghostly Sebastian clothed in his customary white seated at a table in front of them, while the others gather around the edges, watching, listening. The camera spins around, restless, never still for a moment, an erratic frantic searching that follows Sebastian on his crazed flight from the restaurant, through the bowels of the Drama Theatre, and out in front of the screen – in front of us – before meeting his grizzly end off-stage. As the lights dim, leaving the Doctor alone with Catherine’s mother, we realise – as does the Doctor – that, judging from Violet’s reactions and interjections at the beginning of the story, Catherine might just be telling the truth.
Williams’ effect of combining close-up and wide-shot in the one space via video is a sometimes rough approximation for what any dramatist, director and/or audience does naturally. Focusing on one character, we automatically see the close-up of them through their words and emotions while simultaneously seeing the wide-shot of the characters’ interactions with each other in the space. By mediating this with a camera (in a system designed by Shane Johnson who also designed the live-video system used in The Maids in 2013), Williams forces us to look at one particular thing when we often want to look someplace else, at someone else. And as involving and clever and compelling as the video-feed is at times, especially during the first opening out of the garden when Catherine is first introduced, I don’t think it added anything to Williams’ staging. While the extreme close up was held as long as it was to allow a near-total striking of the set to take place, I don’t think it was necessary. In the theatre an audience will automatically make allowances for the wires to show, as Tony Kushner knew and famously wrote in his stage directions to Angels in America; in this way, the use of lighting and blocking – say, placing Catherine far downstage in a spotlight while upstage the stage was struck and Sebastian revealed through lighting, or use of a scrim – could have achieved the same effect, perhaps not as invasive or harrowingly, but certainly more imaginatively.
And this is, I think, the difference between this production and the use of the video feed in Belvoir’s The Glass Menagerie last year. Where Eamon Flack used video to open up a lyrical and haunting dreamlike space at the heart of the story – a space for Tom Wingfield to create an idealised memory of events – Kip Williams’ use of video seems to negate the possibility for such a poetic space by carefully selecting for us what we can and can’t see, quite literally in many cases. In Flack’s Menagerie, we were free to look where we wanted – we could see the actors creating the image, and then see the image on screens either side of the stage like a memory or a haunting – and we could look at one or the other as much as we liked or not at all; in theatre, as in life, some of the most interesting actions come from the people listening and observing. In Suddenly Last Summer though, we don’t have the freedom to make the choice of where to look – the cameras show us what Kip Williams believes we need to see and nothing else; during Catherine’s monologue at the end, we effectively (and literally) lose sight of Nevin’s Violet for large portions of the action as the camera circles Sebastian, Catherine and the Doctor. Despite Williams’ best efforts to select the vision for us, the psychological pain of someone baring their soul is exquisite – doubly so when you consider the potential outcome waiting for Catherine after the play concludes – and no amount of technical whizz-bangery can replace or effectively augment the devastating impact of people and words in a space interacting with each other. The argument could (and has been) made about Shakespeare responding to new trends in his writing, but I would like to think that even he would know when to not use them, would still recognise the power of a person baring their soul in words on a stage.
Williams’ cast is particularly strong, even if it is effectively a three-hander. Robyn Nevin as the matriarch Violet Venables is a veritable gorgon, trying to control and manipulate the truth into the version she is comfortable with, and the version everyone will readily accept. Her opening scene – nay, monologue – with Doctor Cukrowicz is impressive, every little tic and mannerism keenly observed, her voice steely, determined and ice-cold. Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine is pitch-perfect and every bit the match for Nevin’s Violet. Talkative yet scared of the inevitable, her telling of the truth is magnificently controlled and collected, her delivery of the final moments every bit as harrowing as Tennessee Williams’ writing could make it, and there is a shining dignity in her character which does not go unnoticed. While others around her try to control her and tell her how to act and what to say, she knows the only way out is to tell the truth, and so she does, and to devastating effect. Catherine is in many ways the obverse side of the coin of Menagerie’s Rose, so full of life and noise and energy where Rose is silent and eloquent and fragile. Mark Leonard Winter’s Doctor is the third pillar in the story, brought in to determine Catherine’s sanity and to determine the appropriateness of a lobotomy as treatment for her unpalatable outbursts. Instead of being a puppet of Violet’s, he has his integrity and dignity, his constant questioning and urging during Catherine’s end monologue not so much intruding or shaping the telling as clarifying and edifying, for us as much as Violet and Catherine’s family. Leonard Winter brings a suave and charming demeanour to his role, and his passion and (uncharacteristic) compassion is palpable and humbling. The rest of the cast are little more than figures in the landscape of Tennessee Williams’ play, yet they all deliver strong performances: from Susan Prior’s desperate-to-please Mrs Holly, Brandon McClelland’s hot-tempered George (and, later, the volatile Sebastian), Paula Arundell’s gentle Sister Felicity, and Melita Jurisic’s flighty Miss Foxhill. But the play belongs to Catherine, in her fiery determined passionate plea for help, her blistering unflinching telling of the truth in all its unedited and uncompromising detail.
The final components in Williams’ production are Damien Cooper’s lighting, simple and effective, subtly changing mood and strength to reflect the psychological intensity of a moment or scene, and also quite subtly calibrated to work on a screen as much as on a stage, no easy feat. Stefan Gregory’s score, almost through-composed and unrelenting, is as luscious as Babidge’s garden-room set, and as haunting and harrowing as Catherine’s truth. There are moments which recall his music for Flack’s Menagerie, as much as that for Luhrmann’s Gatsby, and while it seemed quite filmic and larger-than-life, it never feels too large for the stage or this story. It could, however, have been less prominent in the final moments of the play, when Catherine finishes her story and the play builds to its excruciating climax; the music was too loud and overbearing and almost drowned out the actors’ voices.

In the end though, the question ‘does it all work’ still remains. The short answer is yes, but it’s not as simple as that. While ‘yes’ it does work, and ‘yes’ it does provide the most compelling argument for the use of a video-feed in a theatrical context yet seen on a Sydney stage, I don’t think it is quite the masterstroke it has been made out to be. There are numerous problems with the blocking of scenes and sightlines, as scenes are blocked for the camera and not the theatre which should be the first consideration (the scene with Catherine and the Doctor alone in the garden-room while standing in the wings of the stage is a good example here; the rest of the stage in this moment is entirely devoid of action and people). The set, too, is luscious, but unfortunately only seems to come to full lush life in its videoed form. There are moments too, like the extreme-close-up on Norvill’s eyes which, although it hides a quick scene change, are too uncomfortable and invasive to be thoroughly effective. In many respects, it succeeds more as a screen work than as a purely theatrical work simply because of the pervasive dominance of the screen’s presence and use in the design and production; the two are coded quite differently in our brains, in the way we watch and ‘read’ and engage with them, and I don’t believe the two can ever effectively be merged in a live theatrical environment, based on all the evidence I have seen so far. Yes, it is a bold, beautiful, and harrowing piece of theatre, but I still believe it could have been just as good – if not, better – without the use of the cameras.

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