Suddenly Last Summer

Suddenly Last Summer
By Tennessee Williams. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Shaun Rennie. 15 May – 10 June 2023

When it first appeared in 1958, Suddenly Last Summer, at 90 minutes, seemed so short that it had to be accompanied by another play by Tennessee Williams, Something Unspoken. Now, of course, it’s the perfect length, packed full of scandal and melodrama, including lobotomy, pederasty and cannibalism. It’s also ‘perhaps the most poetic play’ the great American playwright ever wrote, which for Williams is saying a lot.

Now best remembered for the intense 1959 film with Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn, Suddenly Last Summer is the ghastly story of Sebastian Venable, a rich and sadistic gay man with an overprotective mother, who mysteriously dies while holidaying in Spain with his wild cousin Catherine (Andrea Demetriades), who has her own version of how Sebastian met his end.

Violet Venable (Belinda Giblin), surrounded by luxury and determined to shut Catherine up once and for all, invites a brain surgeon (Remy Hii) to her house and offers to make a generous donation supporting his psychiatric research if he performs a lobotomy on Catherine. She wishes to yank her account of the Spanish visit from the girl’s brain forever. Also backing surgery are Catherine’s mother (Valerie Bader) and brother (Socratis Otto), eager for their share of Sebastian’s inheritance.

Belinda Giblin is tremendous as the evil old woman, all in white except for red lips and burning blue eyes, trying desperately to change the past. And equally outstanding is Andrea Demetriades as the only character allowed to wear coloured clothing and, boy, does she do full justice to a blazing red mini-skirt! The couple face off to perfection.

Buzzing in the background are Valerie Bader and Socratis Otto, both making an impression in small parts.

Tennessee Williams wanted a jungle-garden for his opening scene. But here the fantastical colours and shapes of the jungle have been reduced to ceiling-to-floor hangings. And the author’s ‘prehistoric giant fern-forest’ has been stashed away into four opaque containers that double as stools and tables. 

Direction by Shaun Rennie is much concerned with the shaping of characters in the settings. There’s a constant buzz of sound design from Kelly Ryall and plenty of effective lighting changes from Morgan Moroney.

Frank Hatherley

Photographer: Jaimi Joy

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