17 May 2004: Evening Standard

Sins Of The South

Tennessee Williams, who shocked staid, 1950s audiences with plays steeped in all manner of sex and violence, invites us to an evening of vintage horror.

Fortunately, Michael Grandage, the director of this fascinating operatic revival, premiered at Sheffield's Lyceum in February, is not afraid to risk the charge of emphasising those elements that cause some people to dismiss Suddenly Last Summer as preposterous melodrama.

Grandage allows minor roles to be caricatured, with a nun who looks straight out of The Sound of Music, but he persuasively conceives the play as a neo-Jacobean vision of evil and hell on earth, otherwise known as America's deep south. Here, acquisitive people regard each other as vehicles of their own desires, with nature turned cruel and predatory.

Christopher Oram's tremendous stage-set is a cylindrical drum, which bursts apart to a chorus of bird screams, murmurs and discordant music. A weird garden-conservatory of treelike plants bearing blood-red flowers is disclosed, with distended branches resembling the grossly swollen veins of some prehistoric creature. The design reflects the timbre of the plot. Yet to have your dead, anti-hero - the gay aesthete Sebastian - eaten alive by hungry youths on the sea front, even though in a Third World country where food is in short supply, strikes a note even more grotesque than the setting.

Worse is to come. Sebastian's mother, Violet, played by a half- unrecognisable Diana Rigg in white whig, gruff, rasp of a voice and a wheelchair, makes wild demands.

Mark Bazeley's absurdly wooden psychiatrist must perform a lobotomy on Victoria Hamilton's sedated Catharine, a niece who speaks the truth Violet refuses to contemplate about the son she incestuously adored. Yet a truth-telling drug, which causes Catharine to slip instantly into confessional mode about her cousin's last summer alive, strikes me as the play's one, unduly contrived mechanism.

Catharine's spellbinding revelation of Sebastian's gay deceits, decline and fall gives the play its late dramatic momentum. Victoria Hamilton touchingly plays the girl as a loveless, childlike victim, plagued by her mercentary mother and brother. She relives the past in halting, breathless dismay.

Dame Diana makes little of Violet's grief for Sebastian and does not exude the malign villainy that Sheila Gish brought to the role. Her powerful, poisonous Violet, head craning forward like some speculative tortoise as she beams her mocking, witt, charm in the doctor's direction, does something equally valuable: she seeks her niece's incarceration with the unabashed, jovial shamelessness of the insane.

When finally the drum swings closed, it is as if ghastly skeletons in the closet are being hidden forever.

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