First Night: Southern Gothic fails to deliver

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 stylised vision of a Southern Gothic mansion.

Caught in the lightning is its fierce mistress, Violet Venable. is pitched between the concision of a carefully plotted short story and the drama of a one-act opera and Mathias leans towards the latter. The tensions of this tale about what happened to Violet's handsome son Sebastian, who died in seemingly inexplicable circumstances, move beyond over-ripe drama into a realm of truly violent emotions. Violet has summoned a doctor to witness the "truth" surrounding his death. Last summer, laid low by a stroke, her place on their holiday was taken by Sebastian's cousin Catherine, who has been babbling her version of events. As a result, she has been in an asylum at Violet's expense. The stakes rise with the entrance of every character, all of whom have interests in suppressing Catherine's story, not least Violet, hell-bent on persuading the doctor to administer a lobotomy.

Mathias has encouraged his cast to mine the script for the emotional sub-text, but there's too much of that at the expense of the surface text, which is subtler than it seems here. There is no actress I would rather see play Williams than Sheila Gish, but even she is laid low by Mathias's approach. As Catherine, Rachel Weisz takes her place in the sun with a powerful rendition of the aria that is the demanding final speech but she too is cast adrift. Sebastian used her to procure men, but Weisz cannot suggest her former power, largely due to Tim Hatley's design, as her costume and wig fail to emphasise her beauty. Also, his replacement of Williams's suggested visual lushness with parched symbols of death anticipates the play's climax at the expense of the earlier action.

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