Suddenly Last Summer

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

Reviewed : May 19, 2023*

Photo : Jaimi Joy

We never actually meet Sebastian Venable in this play that centres around him. He is dead, but his mother, Violet, won’t let his memory be besmirched by her niece Catherine, who was with him when he died. Violet is determined to gag Catherine, who is being treated at a mental asylum – even to the extent of trying to convince a doctor to give her a lobotomy.

Williams was never anything but confronting!

This play he chose to write in one act– and yet the complexity of the characters and relationships and the darkness of the plot are just as provoking as his longer plays – and the lyricism even more poetic.

Photo : Jaimi Joy

Shaun Rennie highlights that lyricism in this very beautiful production that not only accentuates the poetic language and the gentle lilt of Southern accents – but conjures the colour and atmosphere of New Orleans in the 1930s. Designer Simone Romaniuk has draped long curtains of filmy fabric printed with flowing vines and leaves from high above the back of the stage. When shifted by slight movements they shimmer in the shadowy shades of changing lighting carefully conceived by designer Morgan Moroney. Perspex boxes filled with greenery – ferns, philodendrons, a hungry venus fly trap – symbolise Sebastian’s lush “jungle garden” and the animals and “flesh eating birds” with which he populated it.

Romaniuk continues the symbolism in her costumes. All but Catherine are dressed in white, symbolic of the society of the time – a sharp contrast to Catherine’s even more symbolic red dress. The pure use of colour brings the characters into greater perspective on the tight arena stage. The audience is a close, silent observer in this savage family conflict.

Belinda Giblin inhabits the malicious Violet Venable in a performance that juxtaposes Violet’s inflexibility with her physical frailty. Violet is an arrogant woman who has idolised her son, keeping him close, even travelling with him on vacation every year. She is determined to protect his name at whatever cost. Giblin reveals the fierce depth of her rancour in spiteful lines, vicious sneers, cruel looks and menacing strikes with her white walking stick. Even as she amiably cajoles the doctor, her deviousness pervades.

Photo : Jaimi Joy

Remy Hii took over the role as the Doctor only 4 days before opening night – but there is no way his performance indicates so short a rehearsal time. The Doctor he portrays is thoughtful, perceptively watchful. His eyes move from one arrogant family member to the other, categorising, deducing, professionally remote. Only with Catherine does he show compassion – and medical curiosity.

Valerie Bader returns to the Ensemble stage in the role of Mrs Holly, Catherine’s mother. Bader merges mother, aunt, sister in this clever performance. She too watches carefully, judging the right time, the right tone, the most effective words to speak to Violet, at the same time constantly mindful of the damage her headstrong son might cause.

Socratis Otto is George, that belligerent, greedy son. Otto makes George fidgety, restless, easily angered, quick to react with words – and aggressive action – yet childishly responsive to his mother’s words of restraint. His anger glints in his eyes and in his restless agitation.

Photo : Jaimi Joy

Then there is Catherine! Andrea Demetriades shines as this distressed, distraught woman. Her fear and unease are shown in anxious eyes and fretful nervousness, yet there is resoluteness in her determination to share the truth of her cousin’s death. Demetriades seems to draw strength for Catherine from a void that she looks into with haunted eyes that have seen too much – a strength that the Doctor sees and reinforces with an injection of truth serum.

Kate Skinner hovers obediently as Venables’ companion and as the psychiatric nurse, Sister Felicity. She lingers, submissively waiting as the first, alertly dutiful as the second.

Rennie matches his stunning production of Tennessee Williams’ Bay Doll in 2022 with this equally theatrical production. It is precisely directed, tightly acted, creatively staged and tautly timed. The performances are transfixing – the story they tell almost unbelievable. Almost.

*Opening Night

Photographer : Jaimi Joy