When imagining ‘experimental theatre’, you might be forgiven for not immediately thinking of a Tennessee Williams play at the Oxford Playhouse. I was therefore initially skeptical as to whether Experimental Theatre Club’s Suddenly Last Summer would explore the play with the commitment to alternative theatrical expression we might expect from the ETC – but almost the moment the house lights came down, my doubts were put to rest. The adventurous staging, with the initial action placed behind a gauze, coupled with a number of movement sequences, demonstrated that this production would be bold and innovative.
Suddenly Last Summer centres on a wealthy family in the American South, and the fallout after the death of the urbane Sebastian while on holiday with his cousin, Catharine. Catharine and her family have come to meet with the family matriarch, Violet Venable, who has arranged for a psychiatric doctor to assess Catharine and attempts to bribe him into performing a lobotomy on her. The production handles this bleak subject matter with sensitivity and a welcome comic undercurrent, relieving what would otherwise be a fairly horrific plot.
There is a lot to praise in Sammy Glover’s production: Harriet Bourhill’s set design is striking, evoking with its wooden pathways and rope nets the atmosphere of a beach resort, the setting of the traumatic events of ‘last summer.’ I commend the decision not to anchor the production’s aesthetic to any particular time period, which is most effective in Hannah Chilver-Vaughan’s costumes. Stark white fabrics are contrasted with Catharine’s bright red jumpsuit, whose double zips make the piece hauntingly redolent of a strait jacket. A further plaudit must go to Shivaike Shah for his makeup which, from the raw red bags under Catharine’s eyes to the ageing transformation of Aunt Violet, was of a high professional standard.
Above all, the play depends heavily on its cast, and this production was not lacking in impressive performances. Mary Higgins owns the stage whenever she is on it, and makes a captivating Catharine. Her well-rounded portrayal of Catharine feels natural and sympathetic: she is by turns child-like and comical, and devastatingly helpless. Derek Mitchell as Violet has a terrific command of the stage and vacillates between a lazy charm, domineering viciousness, and inwardly-corrosive despair. Mention should also be made of the supporting cast, each of whom makes a bold impression. Foremost in this regard is Georgia Pearce as Miss Foxhill, Violet’s nurse, who, although mostly silent, is a great source of comedy throughout, and whose smug facial expressions created some of my favourite moments in the play.
There were elements of the production that I thought did not work as well as they might have done. Although Ed Maclean and Georgia Bruce’s live music was atmospheric and effective, their presence onstage with visible soundboards was at times distracting. The male casting of Violet was another interesting choice: while Mitchell’s performance was outstanding, I did leave the theatre wondering if gender-blind casting should be used to benefit male actors, for whom there are generally more roles. A harrowing scene very unambiguously made a point about Catharine’s treatment as a woman and a sufferer of mental illness, and while the message was clear and important, the fact that the production made much of the moment and then proceeded to carry on without really ever acknowledging it again made it feel somewhat incongruous with the rest of the play. That being said, the point of experimental theatre is to push boundaries and explore alternative ways to present theatrical messages, and in this mission Suddenly Last Summer certainly succeeded.