Brighton Fringe 2023
Tennessee Williams’ 1957 Suddenly Last Summer is a burning study in aftermath, where the price of telling the truth is annihilation – as complete as that which overtook the person whose truth is being told. Directed at New Venture Theatre by Rod Lewis, this production is realised with the white-sky heat suffusing the climactic monologue, in this most poetic, image-studded of all Williams’ plays.
It’s 1937. Formidable Violet Venable (Sheelagh Baker) is an old-money tyrant in denial of a slight stroke. Flailing hauteur around her Baker verbally pummels her carer Miss Foxhill (Sarah Donnelly, a beautifully-judged study in flinch and hover) as she contemplates – with hatred – the niece by marriage she holds responsible for the death of her 40-something poet son Sebastian.
Baker’s presence, her shifts in her wheelchair or elsewhere, her sudden flailing violence, inflects this whole production. At one speech, brief applause breaks out.
Before the object of her ire arrives, Doctor Cukrowicz (Aaron Coomber) is importuned, not subtly, to deliver the coup de grace in return for research funding: basically to recommend a lobotomy on one woman, the now mentally distressed niece, from a woman – Violet Venable – equally complicit with what she abhors. What this is has been voiced. It must never be again. Coomber’s Doctor Sugar (translation of the Polish Cukrowicz) demurs, very politely.
Before that encounter, we’re treated to the poor young woman’s mother and brother. George Holly (Frank Leon) is a terrific study in crass meaterialsitic worthlessness, a man so emotionally and morally blank his hideousness, in Leon’s hands, drips with spoilt entitlement, without even the polish usually accorded such people. Mrs Holly (Amanda Harman) wants the same thing, is just a little subtler in pursuing it, just a bit more wheedling, just a bit more hideous Harman simpers superbly through pastels and bows.
Catherine Holly (Bridgett Ane Lawrence) only arrives with the threatening, slightly malign Sister Felicity (Zoe Edden, a fine study in minor Catholic sadism). Coomber’s Doctor immediately decides to effect what Catherine fears -a truth injection. The gradations of persuasion and isolation as the two sympathetic protagonists are finally left alone, is remarkable. The sudden amity, rapprochement is quite thrilling.
It can’t last, but Catherine will have her hour in court as it were. Coomber’s quietly firm, relentless Doctor Cukrowicz is both emotionally open and somehow inscrutable. What he stands for slowly emerges.
It’s a strong, still performance, full of cognitive micro-shifts as a compassionate man adjusts – several times – to several appalling truths at once; and appalling or appalled people, dead and alive.
But the latter play is Lawrence’s. Memorable for several performances at NVT (particularly central roles in Proof and The Homecoming, as well as BLT’s The Graduate), here Lawrence gives an outstanding performance – perhaps her finest – as the distressed but lucid Catherine.
Lawrence layers a woman already institutionalised for months: frightened, still liable to panic and flight, but in the doctor’s hands, a tremulous but resolute truth-teller. It’s a riveting, detailed performance with a vocal register from flailing distress to ice-cold.
Sebastian’s life, his love of beautiful people, rejection of his mother after her stroke as no longer pleasant to look at, and his recruiting the hapless Catherine, is just prelude to what’s related through Act Two. Then, having pushed as far as he can in telling an uncomfortable truth about sexuality in 1957, Williams ends with lapidary terseness.
Michael Folkard’s set design and painting of a white L-shaped courtyard is exceptional; it drips heat. With door, a false wall allowing a window grilled like a confessional – perfect for people spying or being spied on – and foliage beautifully rendered, is one of the finest Studio renderings I’ve seen here.
It’s matched with John Everett and Neil Hadley’s lighting design, often beautifully spotlit, with a rather grand guignol red-lighting moment that recurs. Alistair Lock’s sound wafts Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude in a cello/piano arrangement like a tortuous passage of moments, and (I think) an orchestral passage from the gothic film score from British composers Buxton Orr and Malcolm Arnold. Credit too to Richi Blennerhassett’s immaculate costumes and hair.
A flawless production, where Lawrence gives one of the three or four finest performances I’ve seen this Fringe: in other words, phenomenal.