Arts: Theatre: Too much, too soon

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The Independent Culture
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