Seriously angry birds: Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams’ view of humanity, in terms of dead-eyed, disillusioned despair, can give even Ibsen and Thomas Hardy (neither famed for their rosy-tinted outlook) a serious run for their money. Suddenly Last Summer is a horrible story, told by terrible people, about other, even more disgusting people and the revolting things they do to others unfortunate enough to cross their path on earth: sex tourism of the predatory paedophilic variety (well – is there any other kind?). But before you start to think I didn’t enjoy this, let me hasten to contradict you: this is a brilliant and demanding watch, mustering eight fascinatingly compromised characters in a highly stressful situation. For a long time, Williams teases us with red herrings about what happened “last summer”: the words recur and recur, but each time we think we might be getting near it, the truth is something most of the characters want to suppress, rather than share. The play soars and swoops around ‘what happened’ like a bird of prey before finally settling down at last to tear it down to its heart in the coruscating (and punishingly intense) concluding tirade from Catharine, a mentally disturbed witness to events, who (under the influence of a truth serum) at last describes exactly how her parasitical, aesthete cousin Sebastian met a fitting fate at the hands of some of his victims, the destitute street children of sad, sordid Cabeza de Lobo.

Open Space Theatre’s production gives a generally gripping account of this one-act play. An eye-catching wordless opening sees the company, dressed in all black, rise writhing from the ground and mimic feasting on some (entirely imaginary) entrails with bestial glee, flapping their arms to indicate wings, over a menacing, throbbing soundscape. We then switch, disconcertingly, to the elegance of a garden in 1930s New Orleans, suggested simply by a few white wicker chairs and spot on period costumes by Suzannah Platt, where the idea of dark carnivorous birds becomes a key verbal image, a memory (of her summer holiday in the Galapagos) retold by Sebastian’s mother, who still obstinately idolises her poet son even in death. Williams smudges the boundaries between memory, metaphor and method as the image is neurotically repeated, applied to different characters, before being horrifyingly evoked by Catharine when she describes the vengeful children as “a flock of plucked birds,” made desperate enough by hunger to do whatever Sebastian wanted them to do in the bathhouse, but also made so angry by his exploitation to later pursue him, mercilessly, to the savage death he undoubtedly deserves.

The darkness, the birds, and the sense of utter, ruthlessness desperation all come across well: Cathy Edwards-Gill gives a brilliant performance as Catharine, a girl not truly mentally ill, but rather brutalised by a callous world, and given no tools or reason to learn to live in it, or cope with it. Instead, Catharine is plunged into a series of private institutions, and in the action of this play she is threatened with lobotomy – a treatment which ruined the life of Williams’ own schizophrenic sister, Rose – by the vicious insistence of Sebastian’s mother, Violet, who has invited a promising but cash strapped young psychiatrist, Dr Sugar, to meet Catharine, in the hope that he will operate on her and shut her up. Yves Green makes a glamourous, self-deluded Violet Venable with a convincing Southern drawl, in a performance which falters at first, but grows in poise, occasionally finding compellingly natural moments of expression. Green is especially good at switching between the two faces of this character; to the doctor, Violet is grief-stricken elegance itself, but to her own staff and family she is cruel, dismissive and harsh. Joe Edwards’ Dr Sugar radiates intelligence, kindliness and patience, bringing the only ray of hope onto the stage as he treats Catharine with gentle decency (and without any lobotomy). Sally Goodsell’s nicely smarmy Mrs Holly strikes the perfect note of socially anxious selfishness, and Ben Willmott is convincing, if a occasionally a little gauche, as Catharine’s young Turk brother, George.  Smaller roles are well portrayed: the sour, yet sensible Sister Felicity (Gilly Mullan) and Violet’s terrorised companion Miss Foxhill (Annie Chapman).

The production has two problems, both stemming from a trigger-happy approach to technology. Sound effects are often too loud, with bird cries drowning out actors’ lines rather than croaking subtly to unsettle us, and music thumping in when we least want it; less would be more here, as Williams’ lyrical words are already music enough. Meanwhile, a screen, to one side of the stage, shows projected photographs, first of plants in Sebastian’s “well-groomed jungle” of a garden, and then of Sebastian himself: these images are distracting, partly because they are inevitably brightly lit, and partly because Williams did not intend us to see Sebastian. The chief power of this play is surely that Sebastian is intriguingly absent, yet constantly talked about. Having photos of a real Sebastian ironically doesn’t help us imagine him effectively. Nevertheless, we are left with the resounding impression that Sebastian spent his life in a complete moral vacuum, searching for a cruel, uncaring God – or way of life – which he then inflicted on all around him.  An evening appropriately nasty, bleak and gripping.

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