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Suddenly Last Summer review (Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House)

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Sydney audiences have seen their fair share of live video on stage over the last few years, with varying degrees of success. In 2010, Benedict Andrews directed Measure for Measure for Belvoir, which took place in a square room surrounded by a semi-transparent curtain, with video projected onto screens either side of the stage. In 2013, Andrews again employed video for his production of The Maids, starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert for Sydney Theatre Company, which went on to play New York.And just last year, Sisters Grimm created a whimsical filmic experience live onstage for the latter half of Calpurnia Descending for STC, while Eamon Flack punctuated his production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir beautifully with classic cinematic techniques, drawing clarity to the ‘memory play’ elements in Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece. That production used cinema as a metaphor for the American Dream, and Tom’s own desire to escape the drudgery of his life, viewing his past through the romantic lens cinema provides.

And now another Williams play has been given the cinema-on-stage treatment by STC’s resident director Kip Williams. This time around the live video is there to enhance the storytelling and style as a contemporary theatrical device, rather than to make a comment on the work itself. It’s not about voyeurism and roleplay — as Andrews’ productions of Measure for Measure and The Maids were — and it’s not about the influence of the style and representation of Hollywood, as both Calpurnia Descending and The Glass Menagerie were.

Which makes Kip Williams’ production of Suddenly Last Summer perhaps the purest use of video technology we’ve seen on a Sydney stage. It’s certainly the most extensive and potentially the smoothest. There is no particular “take” on the text — it simply allows the audience to get up close (often in extreme close-ups) to the live performances, magnifying and reflecting the psychological warfare at play in Williams’ scorching one-act play. Suddenly Last Summer is one of the playwright’s most stark works, and while it features characters as broad as he’s ever wrote — even the monstrous Mrs Venable — it’s a surprisingly simple piece of theatre, made up largely of long monologues which uncover dark secrets. The video work traces the speeches’ emotional through-lines and expands them to make them, arguably, even more powerful than a traditional production in a larger theatre does.

The audience in the Drama Theatre (which already feels a little like a cinema), is faced with a large white scrim, dividing them from the cavernous space of the stage. Behind it, Mrs Venable (Robyn Nevin) tells psychiatrist Doctor Cukrowicz (Mark Leonard Winter) about her recently deceased son, Sebastian, a poet. The pair had long been extremely close until last summer when Sebastian went travelling with his young cousin Catharine (Eryn Jean Norvill), leaving his mother behind. While travelling, Sebastian died in suspicious circumstances, causing Catharine to be hospitalised for mental shock. Mrs Venables is now seeking Doctor Cukrowicz’s help to silence Catharine, whose horrific story of her cousin’s death would damage Sebastian’s memory and the family’s reputation if it were to become public.

The audience learns this in one continuous live shot. Chief camera operator Philip Charles’ lenses fly round the manicured jungle of Sebastian’s garden (design by Alice Babidge) and zooms in and out on the actors’ faces. As Catharine arrives, the onstage revolve suddenly spins around to reveal the stage and the scrim moves to the back of the space. It’s a spectacularly theatrical moment; the type which Williams (the director) has quickly been making his trademark.

The action is filmed by three cameras, all visible onstage with their operators, and broadcast onto the large screen. It’s like being at rock concert as the audience’s attention switches between the projections and the live actors. It also allows the action to be shown in split-screen from multiple perspectives.

This technical complexity works when the performances are as nuanced as they are bold. Robyn Nevin’s Mrs Venable is sympathetically, passionately drawn, and her eccentric mannerisms add up to an entirely new Nevin creation, without any trace of  previous performances (although on opening night, Nevin’s accent unexpectedly dropped for an entire sentence). Norvill as Catharine is the perfect match for the Sydney stage doyenne, with a steeliness constantly beating through her jittery vulnerability. Her performance intensifies every time the cameras moves closer in on her porcelain features and she builds her monologue to a spectacular crescendo, aided by Stefan Gregory’s extraordinary, creeping sound design.

Mark Leonard Winter is superb as the confident doctor and Susan Prior and Brandon McClelland are suitably devious as the relatives protecting their share of Sebastian’s fortune. It’s a luxurious cast, with Melita Jurisic and Paula Arundell filling two very small roles.

Williams’ decision to play about half the performance behind the scrim and half in front works brilliantly, but there is one moment where Norvill’s monologue feels too big to keep her separated from the audience behind the scrim. The first 20 minutes of the play (all behind the screen) feel slightly isolating but there’s no denying the production’s power when it kicks into gear. Many might argue that there’s been a surplus of live video feeds on Sydney stages recently, but the camera’s potential to bring theatre into sharper focus doesn’t seem to have been exhausted just yet. And why not let directors play with some new toys for a little while and see what they can come up with? The result is often enthralling.

Suddenly Last Summer is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 21. Featured image by Brett Boardman

2 responses to “Suddenly Last Summer review (Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House)

  1. I have to disagree with your take on the first 20 minutes Ben.

    I found the almost claustrophobic feeling a perfect reflection of Mrs Venable’s feelings to life in general and Sebastian’s memory in particular.

    Everything must be contained and constrained in service of her version Sebastian’s life and memory.

  2. I found the first 2/3rds very very hard going….the constant monologues were monotonous and a tad over acted….it lacked any engagement up until the last 1/4….I found it fairly plodding…and the revelation only sort to highlight the mundane earlier content…but then again I guess that’s Williams

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