Review: From the outer outer to the inner inner

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The Independent Culture
TENNESSEE Williams is to drama what Las Vegas is to urban design. His plays, it can sometimes seem, are all hoarding and neon, garishly advertising their concerns with a set of knock-your-eyes out symbols. A director who gets embarrassed by this would do better never to have begun - you can no more successfully play it down than you can make Caesar's Palace blend into the desert by painting it a fetching shade of ochre. Far better to loosen your collar, wipe your brow and enjoy the whole business.

Which is what Richard Eyre obviously did while directing Suddenly Last Summer for the new season of Performance (BBC 2). From the opening moments - a steamy inspection of a collection of carniverous plants and rare fungi - it was clear that he wasn't going to keep dabbing nervously on the brakes. This is a world of hothouse monsters, those images declared, bred out of decay and enclosure. And then, as if out of the primeval mists, the most florid and lethal of them emerged - Mrs Venable, a bereaved mother with a widow's grief and a fierce appetite for a victim. Here Maggie Smith played her as a human flytrap, moving as much by reflex as mental design, so that by the end her cruelties can be seen as a matter of personal survival.

Mrs Venable is trying to persuade Dr Cukrowicz (Rob Lowe) to 'treat' her niece Catharine Holly, whose account of her son's horrible death doesn't fit her own pretensions. Catherine's mother and brother want her to shut up too (they stand to inherit if she toes the line). Mrs Venable hints that her generous support of Dr Cukrowicz's research might come to an end if some way isn't found to prevent the girl from talking. So, in play is motherly obsession (a portrait of St Sebastian propped in the corner suggests, with characteristic subtlety, that her love isn't quite an everyday matter), greed, a young man's ethics and the truth.

The play itself is a hothouse thing - it feels fungal and rubbery, ornamented with overblown scenes which leave you slightly disgusted, uncertain whether this stuff is dangerous or merely comical. There are speeches so heavily freighted with symbolism that they are almost below the waterline; symbolic images that return with the subtlety of a kippery belch; bits of B- movie dialogue: 'I can't guarantee that a lobotomy would stop her babbling,' says Lowe's Dr Cukrowicz, with not a hint here of the look-at-me smirk that you sometimes get in his film performances. 'Maybe not', drawls Smith, 'but aftah thuh operation who would believe huh?' Vincent Price would have been proud of that line.

But Smith's performance and Eyre's direction ensured that you shuddered rather than giggled here. From the appearance of Catharine herself (played by Natasha Richardson with an utterly seductive delicacy), the play begins to tense anyway, bracing itself for the truth that Mrs Venable already knows, an elaborate set- piece speech which exposes the truth of her son's life and death.

It looked marvellous in a way that was never merely cosmetic, set in a rambling Southern mansion which offered deceptive vistas and wonderful subtleties of proximity and distance between the characters, and lit with unabashed drama. In a wonderful moment at the play's climax, Richardson turned to the camera and the light flooded full on her face, a self-consciously unrealistic effect which brought home to you how literally sombre the play had been - a series of long vistas in which there was always light down the corridor or through the enclosing trees, but never in the room, where it was needed.

'If you haven't got an outer outer that goes straight through to the inner inner then you must be a rotten actor,' said one of the teachers at London's Drama Centre to the new year's intake, the subject of BBC 2's fly-on-the-wall series Theatre School. So that's how it's done, you thought; that's how you take a group of young and likeable people, endearing in their optimism and energy, and turn them into posturing ninnies.