Adrian Noble's luminous, sensitive and sharp production marks the bizarrely belated London premiere of Summer and Smoke, the 1948 Tennessee Williams play that followed the sensational A Streetcar Named Desire. I have, however, seen the piece once before in England, in a 1987 staging at the Leicester Haymarket.
I think that I must have been going through a severe phase of automatic impatience with overt symbolism because my notice poured undiluted scorn on what I then saw as the play's schematic overload. A set-up whereby there's a heroine called "Alma" (the Spanish word for "soul"), who represents the spirit, and a hero equipped with a contrasting carnality and a torrid Mexican bit on the side (though, of course, he really loves Alma) was a red rag to the bull of a critic I was 20 years ago.
And a play in those days was on a hiding to absolutely nothing with me if it did things like place over the proceedings a whacking great statue of a female angel pouring water from cupped hands into a fountain.
So who says that we don't (even critics) improve with age? I still find the play a little too tightly organised, but thanks to Noble's beautiful (if for my taste a touch too slow) direction and some lovely acting by a well-cast company, I find myself struck by the ambiguities in the symbolism, the delicacy and wit of the writing and the terrible poignancy of a situation where two people, who might have been born to complement each other, instead assist, through a tragic bind, in their own mutual estrangement.
Peter McKintosh's design gives Summer and Smoke just the right kind of poetic spaciousness and slightly abstract quality. The exquisite sky, an impressionist marbling of blue and white, inundates the production and further releases the play from the confines of earthbound realism. Cleverly, he uses wooden Venetian blinds to unify the indoor action in a piece that often has to balance two locations.
Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi in 1916 (with a prelude at the turn of the century), the play follows the intertwined fortunes of Alma (Rosamund Pike), a clergyman's daughter, and John, a doctor's son, who is (literally speaking if in no other way) the boy next door.
Rebelling against his father, he has turned to maverick dissolution. The exquisite Pike conveys not some vague conception of ethereality, but the complicated plight of a young woman who has unfairly been left to manage a household in lieu of her mother, who has relapsed into a subversive second childhood as an opt-out from her parish responsibilities. Angela Down's superb performance of this wizened infant, gleefully trotting out secrets and repetitions, seems to cross a tactical tot with an anarchic parrot.
Pike's Alma touches the heart with her shy, compulsive laughter in emotionally tricky situations, her defensive affectations (there are some very funny scenes with the socially poisonous literary society) and her underlying seriousness. She is splendidly partnered by handsome, subtle Chris Carmack, who lets you see hints of the idealist who is left unsatisfied by his fierce adventures with the flesh provided by Hanne Steen's sizzlingly sultry Rosa.
The death by shooting of John's stiff, righteous father initiates the process whereby Alma and John exchange positions, narrowly missing each other as they progress. John redeems himself by finishing his father's work in fighting a fever epidemic and becomes a public hero. Early in the play, a sexily skittish John had diagnosed in Alma a case of "irritated Doppelgänger". The twofold irony is that this alter ego turns out to be quite his own earlier self and that his reform is inspired by the earlier Alma.
At the end of the play, in scenes of quietly desperate sadness, she is reduced to picking up businessmen on the streets. In the final image of this expertly judged production, we see her taking a last drag on the cigarette that she has shared with a new client and flicking the butt into the angel-guarded fountain. Highly recommended.
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