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All bark and no bite

Category: Suddenly Last Summer Reviews
Article Date: April 17, 1999 | Publication: The Guardian (London) | Author: MICHAEL BILLINGTON

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It's written by Tennessee Williams, it stars Hollywood darling Rachel Weisz, and the hero gets eaten. Suddenly Last Summer can't go wrong. But it does, says Michael Billington

In July 1960 two American movies opened within a week of each other. One, Please Don't Eat The Daisies, dealt with the travails of a New York drama critic. The other, Suddenly Last Summer, ended with the cannibalistic consumption of a gay poet. That avid moviegoer John Gielgud emerged from the latter and wittily dubbed it 'Please Don't Eat The Pansies'.

If only something of that lightness of spirit informed Sean Mathias's revival of Suddenly Last Summer at the Comedy Theatre. On one level, Tennessee Williams's 90-minute play is a macabre fable about universal destructiveness. On another, it is a piece of high-camp Southern Gothic at which the author himself apparently used to chuckle. Yet from the moment the curtain rises on Tim Hatley's overblown visualisation of a New Orleans garden full of predatory plants, it appears we are meant to take the play with total seriousness.

I find that difficult because Williams seems more intent on illustrating a thesis than on exploring a situation. We are surrounded, he suggests, by omnivorous destroyers. So we meet the richly decaying Mrs Venable, who feeds off the memories of her dead son, Sebastian, and who incantatorily talks of the Encantadas where birds devour new-born sea turtles. Mrs Venable also wishes to see Sebastian's cousin, Catharine, lobotomised because she knows the truth about his death. And, for good measure, Catharine's mother and brother turn out to be a pair of parasites impatient to get their hands on Sebastian's money. All the world, in Williams's view, is like the Venus flytrap that dominates this Southern garden.

Williams was perennially obsessed by the conflict between the poetic soul and materialism. But while in A Streetcar Named Desire he fully dramatised that clash, he here takes it as a given. And while Catharine and Sebastian clearly represent finer feeling, it is hard to take the latter's martyrdom at face value. He seems less the poet wantonly destroyed by a cruel universe than a pampered dilettante torn to pieces by the Spanish boys he has so assiduously colonised.

The work's saving graces are Williams's musical ear and ironic humour. Both, however, emerge rather fitfully in Mathias's heavy-handed production. He fills the air with sound from cawing jungle birds to beating tom-toms; he seems less sensitive, however, to the rhythms of Williams's prose. Only Sheila Gish, looking like some Garden District Lucrezia Borgia in regal purple, fully inhabits either the American South or the muscular music of Williams's writing. And when she displays a photograph of 'my son, Sebastian, in a Renaissance page boy's costume at a masked ball in Cannes' she seems aware of her character's inherent absurdity.

Rachel Weisz as Catharine has a peaches-and-cream beauty but hardly suggests a girl haunted by a dark secret; this is a character on the edge of madness. Even when she stubs a cigarette out on the palm of a nun's hand, Weisz somehow seems irrevocably sane. Gerard Butler is also little more than an amiable cipher as a sympathetic doctor, and it is left to Johanna Kirby as Mrs Venable's browbeaten servant to convey the right atmosphere of hidden terror.

After the rich Shaffer-Stoppard double bill with which Warehouse Productions launched its occupancy of the Comedy, this seems thin fare. A piece of eccentric minor Williams, which feels more like a sinister anecdote than a fully fleshed-out play, is rendered with souped-up sound effects and in a luxuriantly cluttered set that almost upstages the actors. If the work is to be revived at all, it requires a strong counterweight, a leavening humour and an ensemble whose experience of the hothouse South extends slightly further than Bexhill-on-Sea.

At the Comedy Theatre, London SW1 (0171-369 1731), till July 17.

Copyright 1999 Guardian Newspapers Limited


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