BY 1957, when he wrote Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams was a dramatist with a great future almost behind him.
The plays on which his reputation rests, most notably The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, were long since written, and many bleak years of declining inspiration and critical hostility lay ahead.
In this overblown, intemperate drama, you can smell the rot setting in. Though it deals with some of Williams's most obsessive themes - the lobotomy of his mentally disturbed sister, Rose, his own fear of madness and guilt about his homosexuality, you don't feel here, as in his finest plays, that personal trauma is being transformed into great art.
Instead it provides the fuel for hysterical melodrama and over- the-top schlock. Not to put too fine a point on it, the play is not so much a modern tragedy as an entertaining example of the higher tosh.
Still, Michael Grandage, the director, and an outstanding cast headed by Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton, mostly give the game impression that they take this preposterous piece seriously, though I couldn't help noticing that Rigg spends much of the show with her face hidden in her shawl, as if suffering agonies of understandable embarrassment.
The action is set in the sinister "jungle garden" conservatory of a New Orleans mansion, dramatically realised in a set design by Christopher Oram that menacingly opens and closes like a massive Venus flytrap.
This garden of malevolent creepers and exotic blooms was the pride and joy of Sebastian Venable, a Dorian Gray-like poet with morals to match. Each summer he went on his travels with his doting mother (Rigg) but the previous year, after she suffered a stroke, he travelled instead with his pretty young cousin, Catharine Holly (Hamilton). Unfortunately, he died in mysterious circumstances, and a traumatised Catharine has come home babbling a terrible story about his fate.
Not content with having her locked up in a lunatic asylumhowever, Mrs Venable is now trying to persuade a doctor to perform a lobotomy on her, in order "to cut the hideous story from her brain". But what if she still keeps babbling after the surgery, the rattled medic asks. Like the villain of a Victorian melodrama, Rigg icily replies: "But after the operation, who would believe her, Doctor?"
As Mrs Venable, Rigg is commanding, obsessive and menacingly manipulative, her voice a great southern rasp. But she never electrifies the stage with mad villainy and unhealthy maternal love as Sheila Gish did in the role a few years ago, and seems to deliver some of her more preposterous lines with almost visible quotation marks around them. Rigg is an actress capable of the most lacerating emotion. Here, however, she seems to be holding something back, as if she doesn't believe the play is worth her trouble. In this, she may be right.
There is no such reserve in Hamilton's performance as the damaged Catharine. She brings a quivering neurotic intensity to the stage, and a desperate emotional neediness, beautifully revealed in the scene when she begs the doctor (Mark Bazeley) to hold her because she is so unbearably lonely. What's more, her hypnotic account of Sebastian's appalling fate at the hands of the desperate youths he once preyed upon has a rapt sincerity that almost persuades you to believe in Williams's outrageous cannibalistic climax.
Grandage's production, with a menacing score by Adam Cork, certainly keeps you gripped. But even with two remarkable actresses, this still seems like the work of a magnificent writer in steep decline.