A decade or so ago, Diana Rigg played Medea in front of a wall of steel which came loudly tumbling down at the height of the tragedy. The first sight of Christopher Oram's set for Suddenly Last Summer recalls that wall: Oram has constructed a huge cylindrical steel vault, which creaks and rumbles open with a sound like the gates of Hell, to reveal a lividly lit torment of foliage which only later resolves itself into a half-neglected semi-tropical garden. This is the geography of hell, or of madness, or of internal anguish... for the vault could also be the torso of the departed Sebastian, and its scars and gashes the wounds inflicted on him.
Tennessee Williams' play involves all of these motifs. It turns on an account of Sebastian's death given by his now-institutionalised cousin, and examines the psychological injuries and infernos we are prepared to visit upon each other for our own ends. The first point I mentioned is authorised by Michael Grandage's production, now at the Sheffield Lyceum before a tour and likely West End transfer. For the physically frail but steely-souled matriarch who is Sebastian's mother is indeed played by Diana Rigg.
It's almost shocking to see Rigg as such an age-bent character in a silver perm and wheelchair. But Mrs Venable's mind and spirit are as unbending as the greatest of Rigg's roles. When a young doctor, half-taken in by her, remarks, "You're such an innocent person," it rings not just hollow but absurd; innocent is not in Rigg's dramatic vocabulary, nor need it be.
As disturbed niece Catharine, Victoria Hamilton continues to find a strength of portrayal that is more settled than the younger, fiery force she displayed at first as an actress; these days she taps into more powerful currents. Recounting the story of Sebastian's cruising on a Mexican beach, his pursuit and cannibalisation by a gang of street youths, Hamilton holds the typically febrile Williams atmosphere in check until the very climax of the narrative, when matters slip over the top. Adam Cork's wonderfully disquieting sound score both helps to delineate the tone for most of the production's 100 minutes, and unfortunately participates in the peak of excess. But it is only a very little way over the top. For this is a vista where I cannot help but imagine every character echoing the words I have heard twice this month in stage versions of Paradise Lost: "Myself am Hell."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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