Julian Eaves reviews the West End transfer of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams at the Duke Of York’s Theatre London.
Summer and Smoke
Duke of York’s Theatre
21st November 2018
Tennessee Williams, it is often said, had only one story to tell, and he re-wrote it a hundred times. That doesn’t make him unusual amongst writers, plenty of others could have the same said of them. But for a writer who believed intensely in having a close personal involvement with the project of the moment, and given that his life was remarkably consistent and coherent, forever returning to dwell upon menaces and struggles from the past (often through alcoholic or narcotic inducement), his work does rejoice in an homogeneity and contiguity that is particularly striking. This phenomenon was doubtless made much more solid and omnipresent through his preferred method of working: he would begin with a feeling that he translated into a poem, he developed that into a short story, and then converted that in its turn into a one-act play, which he would then expand – if the muse stayed with him that long – into a full length drama. This process produced some magnificent results, as well as a good number of also-rans. The pick of the crop remain with us, always being trotted out somewhere for a public that never seems to lose its appetite for his over-heated southern melodramas. Occasionally, in the continuing posthumous popularity of his oeuvre, the also-rans can be converted (by an imaginative director) into dramas of first-class effectiveness… think of the recent astonishing rediscovery of ‘Confessional’ at the Southwark Playhouse.
Equally, sometimes the less successful of his plays resist all attempts at resuscitation. And this can be said of this latest effort from the Almeida, transferring into the West End. It is a beautiful production, incredibly austere and close, looking and sounding as modern as anything from that house: Rebecca Frecknall, revisiting this text for the third time must count as something of an expert on it, and her response is to turn it into a virtuoso showcase of unabashed director’s theatre, her concept riding high over the not-quite-in-focus moods of the script, and – almost – convincing us that it is worth all that trouble.
Tom Scutt’s design – lit precisely and fluidly by Lee Curran – gives us a recreation of the back wall of exposed brick of the Almeida itself, with a semi-circular sweep of seven upright pianos, with their fronts off, looking for all the world like a hand-me-down, tatterdemalion take on ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr.T’. But there, dear readers, any suggestion of fun abruptly ends. This is Serious Drama with a capital S and D, and we are emphatically not here to enjoy ourselves. What we get, in Frecknall’s disciplined, insistent show, is an earnest frown of a production, perhaps best worn behind plain, horn-rimmed spectacles, with no make-up on and hair swept back and tied primly in a ponytail at the back. It is as if Tennessee Williams had been strained three times through a sieve of Henrik Ibsen at his most misanthropic, resulting in a refined but comfortless liquor.
The cast stay on-stage for as long as possible, perched on their piano stools, often staring – rather rudely, I thought – at actors with lines to say doing something different. They play their instruments, too, although I hadn’t the faintest idea why: because they were there? I mean, this isn’t actually ‘The Seventh Veil’ with Ann Todd and James Mason, but I guess it might as well have been, for all there was any discernible relationship between the director’s caprice and the actual story being told. Or re-told. Carolyn Downing’s sound design had to manage the cacophony of their playing – a kind of Bartok meets Ligetti meets Conlon Nancarrow in Angus MacRae’s attractively pithy score.
Individually, the eight players all take on the usual Williams roles and do with them what little they demand. Matthew Needham is the Bold Young Man, the hero – perhaps – of this particular ‘Scenes of Provincial Life’; he demonstrates all the dionysian qualities expected of the idealised stand-in for Mr Williams himself. Playing opposite him, in every contrived way possible, is Patsy Ferran’s apollonian spinster-librarian; she comes closest of them all to finding some humanising humour in the dry-as-dust interpretation offered by Frecknall, but still had to suffer her guts being drawn right there on the stage in front of all our eyes. Oh, joy.
The secondary players are all exactly what you would expect them to be. Anjana Vasan is ‘The Other Woman’, a barely distinguishable repeat of ‘Woman as Whore’. However, I must hurry to reassure you that in this production there is no extensive and entirely gratuitous display of nudity. Frecknall is not that kind of director, as far as I know. Nor is there any push made to drag the visual design of the production into our times. Similarly, there is no effort made to respect the changes of costume demanded by the text, which leaves you worrying about the reliability of the decisions that have been made. Vasan, however, gets to sing: and she does this wonderfully well, and the choice of song and its execution are amongst the highlights of the show.
Eric MacLennan and Forbes Masson play virtually interchangeable daddies – I think one was given a stick and one a moustache, but I could still barely tell them apart. One of them gets shot (oh, come on: it’s not a spoiler… the gun gets brought on-stage and Williams is a good enough playwright to know that, having shown it, he has to use it, and he loses not much time about doing so). The thing is, at the death, Curran’s lighting does something really imaginative, and the deceased apostrophises his passing in a simply ravishing aria, which I think might be a poem by Marvell, or – more likely? – John Donne. Somebody help me out here. It’s gorgeous, anyway, and indicates, I think, a useful direction Frecknall might have taken: here she displays she has a heart, and it is the one really moving and creative moment in an otherwise rather dour and dessicated evening. I suspect she could come up with a far better play if she did a Frank Castorf and just ignored the original text altogether and did her own thing. Entirely. I think she has that in her and when she does that it will be sensational.
There is a busy-body older woman, in the form of Nancy Crane – rather under-thought-through here and very unlike her recent wonderful work in ‘Dance Nation’. Seb Carrington gets to ‘do’ the ‘young, young man’, and Tok Stephen is the token coloured role. This is, after all, the South. But I just couldn’t work out whether he is a BME actor who just happens to be cast in any part in a play (originally conceived to be a caucasian figure, perhaps), or whether he was actually supposed to be African-American and making a point about a surprising level of racial integration in 1940s Louisiana: this is not New Orleans, not the Vieux Carre, this is the Delta. You tell me. I found myself worrying about all this when I should have been listening to what he had to say. It is a distraction. Race is a monumental issue in the US, as elsewhere, and casting ‘ethnically blind’, which may or may not be happening here, doesn’t help me to get to grips with it. Does it help you? I’d love to know.
So, is it all worth sitting through? If you really like your director’s theatre, emphatically yes. Frecknall is a strong character and does what she wants to do with the play. Is it a play worth seeing in its own right? For addicts of Williams, yes; for the rest of us… ? The jury’s still out. The jury is you.