Review: Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams at Red Stitch Theatre23 October 2018
Mesmerising. If there’s one word to describe this play, it’s that. Mesmerising.
Suddenly Last Summer tells the story of Sebastian Venable, a wealthy poet (you can see how fantastical the play is from this alone) who died when he was on vacation last summer with his wild cousin Catharine Holly (Kate Cole). Upon returning, Catharine’s story of how Sebastian died is deemed so disturbing that she was sent to an institution, paid for by Sebastian’s mother Violet (Jennifer Vuletic). However, troubled by Catharine’s continuous ramblings, she calls on a doctor that specialises in lobotomies (Charles Purcell) to conduct one on her niece. In interviewing both Violet and Catharine to see if a lobotomy is necessary, the story unravels, slowly, until we discover what really happened to Sebastian Venable. Suddenly Last Summer sounds like a characteristic tension-filled Tennessee Williams play, complete with dysfunctional relationships and a vaguely autobiographical narrative, but Red Stitch’s rendition brings it to life so vividly that you are kept transfixed throughout the one-act show.
After wandering around the area a couple of times trying to find the entry to the theatre, I wondered if I was in the right place—the theatre was located in a small barn-like building in the back of a churchyard, and almost everyone standing at and around the bar in the foyer were seniors. It was a Sunday night with a 6.30 show, and although I fleetingly thought that the audience would be younger, after worrying about being late the whole time I made my way there, I was just relieved I got there in time that I didn’t pay much attention to the oddly skewed age of the audience.
We quickly quieted down once they killed the lights. Eerie music started to play and the walls, completely covered in grass stalks and the occasional flower, were bathed in bright lavender light. Jennifer Vuletic as Mrs Violet Venable strolls out with a walking stick wearing a lavender fringe dress. She faces the crowd as she walks, slowly but with purpose, a knowing smile on her face. She stops at the other side of the stage, and Charles Purcell walks out carrying a physician’s bag. They stare at each other flirtatiously, then they start talking. This first scene is important, introducing us to Mrs Venable’s intentions, but it goes on a little too long. Their dialogue goes around and around as if they wanted to make sure they’ve really hammered in their point.
This, however, was the only scene where my thoughts had time to wander. Every scene after that, despite the fact that there were only seven characters in total, was riveting, and I was enraptured, unable to take my eyes off the stage for even a second. The set remained as is the whole time, but it became different things throughout the play as the sounds that accompanied the tense scenes worked perfectly in tandem with the lights to build certain moods. Set in the 1960s in New Orleans, all the actors had Southern accents—many of which were admittedly not perfect, but were still pretty good. Kate Cole and Jennifer Vuletic are the real stars in this show—the delivery of their monologues, their physical movements, even their reactions in the background when another character is in the spotlight—in those 90 minutes, they were their characters.
When the lights went back up and the actors stepped forward to take a bow, it was abrupt. It felt surreal to see all of them smiling and holding hands just moments after they were trying to get as far away from each other as possible. I walked out in a daze, my mind still racing to figure out what just happened.
The show is still running at the Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre until 4 November. Please note that they use haze and herbal cigarettes (this was a bit stifling at times, even though I was sitting in the second row from the top).