Arts: Theatre: Too much, too soon

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER; COMEDY THEATRE, LONDON

THE GRAND Guignol opening of Sean Mathias's revival of Tennessee Williams's 1957 play augurs well. There's a deafening crack of thunder and the curtain rises on a highly stylised vision of a Southern Gothic mansion. We see, caught in the lightning, its fierce mistress, Violet Venable.

Suddenly Last Summer is uniquely pitched between the concision of a short story and the high drama of a one-act opera and Mathias quite rightly leans towards the latter. The mounting tensions of this tale about what really happened to Violet's handsome son Sebastian, who died in seemingly inexplicable circumstances, move beyond consciously over-ripe drama into a realm of truly violent emotions, intense even by Williams's standards.

Violet has summoned a doctor to witness the "truth" surrounding her son's death. Last summer, her place on their annual holiday was taken by Sebastian's beautiful cousin Catherine who, ever since, has been babbling her version of events. As a result she has been incarcerated in an asylum at Violet's expense. The dramatic stakes rise with the entrance of every character; all of them have vested interests in suppressing Catherine's story, not least Violet who, we discover, is hell-bent on persuading the doctor to perform a lobotomy.

The linguistic rhythms of the play demand an almost architectural control of structure, but Mathias has focused on encouraging his cast to mine the script for the emotional subtext. This can pay huge dividends, as in his controversial interpretation of Coward's Design for Living. But this approach denies the possibility that characters are good at disguising their true nature, and in this instance there's too much concentration on subtext at the expense of the surface text, which is subtler than it seems here. With emotions and motives laid bare from the start, everything peaks too soon, putting a strain on the play's rising emotional arc.

It also ruins the tension. There is no actress I would rather see play Tennessee Williams than Sheila Gish, but even she is laid low by Mathias's approach. Instead of allowing the full horror of Violet's plan to steal over you, Gish reveals her true nature and self-delusions from the outset, thus robbing us of Williams's surprise shift of sympathies.

As Catherine, Rachel Weisz takes her place in the sun with a powerful rendition of the full-blown aria that is the tremendously demanding final speech, but she too is cast adrift by the production. Sebastian used her to procure men, but Weisz cannot suggest Catherine's former power as, largely because of Tim Hatley's awkward design, her costume and wig fail to emphasise her beauty. Also, his replacement of Williams's suggested visual lushness with monstrous, parched symbols of death anticipates the play's climax at the expense of the earlier action.

Gore Vidal once wrote of Williams: "The best of his plays are as permanent as anything can be in the age of Kleenex." Although he is unlikely to have meant Suddenly Last Summer, it is potentially more exciting than this misjudged revival suggests.

Booking: 0171-369 1731. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz