Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer is one of his most intriguing plays. Written fairly late on in his career, it is a beautifully poetic yet sinister piece of theatre which muses on truth, power, and storytelling itself. Although rarely performed, the Experimental Theatre Club went some way towards fixing this omission in a scintillating and heart-breaking production at the Oxford Playhouse.
The play centres around the aftermath of the death of Sebastian, the son of Violet Venable (Derek Mitchell) and the cousin of Catharine (Mary Higgins), who died the previous summer whilst on holiday with his cousin. Under attack from self-interested family members, her carers, and the bitter, disbelieving Violet Venable, Catherine is tormented by the story of Sebastian’s death: a story which has seared itself into her brain, but which no one really believes.
It is the delicate power balance between Catharine, Violet, and the people around them which was brilliantly captured by director Sammy Glover and her team. The staging was intricate and vivid, opening with a dream-like montage behind a grey semi-transparent curtain. This curtain was used effectively throughout the play, creating a sinister detachment between the clarity of the ‘real’ world at the front of the stage, and the ghostly realm behind it. Meanwhile Catharine leapt about the stage, in one scene running away from Sister Felicity (India Opzoomer) with a cigarette in her hand, her movements those of a mischievous and bounding child. Their physical struggle became self-consciously dance-like as Felicity tried to wrestle the cigarette from Catharine’s hand. Other scenes resembled torture, the visual action evoking Catharine’s internal torment. She was thrust into chairs, stripped naked and washed by robotic figures in white, and even kept on a leash by her ‘carers’.
This sense of constant flux was accentuated by bold music, played live by Ed Maclean and Georgia Bruce. Here, unlike in some student productions, music was given unapologetic prominence. Its most effective use was in the first scene, where the hazy collage of dance, violence, and romance was accompanied by an incessant electronic piece, which got louder and louder until it became nightmarish, almost obscuring the visual action. In less frantic scenes the electronic harshness was replaced by a delicate guitar line and a wistful Laura Marling-esque vocal.
On top of all this brilliantly-conceived and executed staging, the acting was formidable. Mary Higgins played Catharine with acute sensitivity. Her character is at once manic, playful, desperate and victimised, and Higgins conveyed this with a subtlety which resisted the temptation of slipping into a caricatured ‘Madwoman in the Attic’. This meant that the audience was never allowed to settle, kept in a constant state of uncertainty about whether or not to believe her story. Her eventual narration of the story of Sebastian’s death was the apex of the play: a long and emotionally-intense scene which Higgins commanded without ever losing focus.
There were some other excellent performances: Aaron Skates played Catharine’s frustrated and desperate brother particularly well, and Georgia Pierce, although silent for most of the play, was eerie as Violet’s carer, looming behind the old woman with a lobotomised smile. Cassian Bilton was confident as the Doctor, although his American accent – a deceptively difficult thing to keep going throughout the length of a play – meant that his delivery sometimes lacked the natural authority of the other main characters.
As good as these performances generally were, the star of the show was undoubtedly Derek Mitchell, who displayed one of the most astounding pieces of acting I’ve seen in a student production. Having a young man play the character of Violet could have been jarring, but it worked uncannily well. Hannah Chilver-Vaughan and Shivaike Shah’s costumes and make-up were superb, transforming Mitchell into a gaunt and pale old woman, rings adorning her bony figures, metallic-grey curly hair arranged in a pristine nest. Mitchell paid incredible attention to detail in his acting. His tiny mannerisms, the gentle Southern lilt he gave his character’s voice, and the way in which he commanded the attention of everyone in the room as he wandered about the stage with his walking stick, were genuinely captivating.
Suddenly Last Summer is, at its heart, a play about the complexities of storytelling. Storytelling can provide a space where fact and fiction are allowed to bleed into each other, with potentially exciting and insidious consequences. This duality seeped into everything in the play: the shifting moods, the music, the mingling of dance and violence, the perpetually unstable power dynamics. I wondered whether Suddenly Last Summer’s relative neglect by theatre directors over the years would be down to the quality of the text itself, but I was wrong. The Experimental Theatre Club made a brave choice to stage this work, resulting in one of the most interesting, intense, and accomplished pieces of student theatre I have seen.