Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams
By Tennessee Williams
Almeida Theatre, London
Until April 7, 2018
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Summer and Smoke made the reputation of Geraldine Page who was perfectly cast as the twitchy, highly strung young minister's daughter from the Mississippi gulf coast who has a doomed love affair with the lusty son of the local doctor. It needs careful casting and a special actress to pull it off and here a striking newish talent, Patsy Ferran, does just that.
Ferran has already proven her comic ability and even gets to employ some of that here because the loquacious Alma has a caustic wit. She reveals that fervently-alive, gawky intensity that many great comics share, the kind of skill which makes them great actors if they ever cross-over. Despite being dressed in a prim buttoned-up blouse and a sensible skirt she still appears as if she's about to jump out of her skin at any moment. Ferran perfectly captures Alma's mix of the Puritan and the Cavalier.
The play premiered just the year after A Streetcar Named Desire yet it's seldom performed as it is a more thorny and poetic piece. Here, up and coming young director Rebecca Frecknall has thrown away the rule book and given us a stripped down interpretation, which downplays the supporting parts (doubled up here), uses a single abstract set and focuses on the intensity of the spiritual vs sexual battle of the central couple.
We first see Alma downstage standing at a mic. She is in the midst of a panic attack and gulping for air. Behind her are the rest of the cast seated at a semi-circle of 9 upright pianos lit in a golden glow (by Lee Curran) which evokes the lazy indolence of summer on the Gulf coast. Angus MacRae's music compositions are crucial here too and are used to mesmerising but sparing effect. Likewise, Carolyn Downing's masterful sound design plays a central role in creating what is often like a sound poem.
Frecknall has rebuilt the play using sound and light and design to draw out its poetry and it's the better for it. A conventional staging of so windy a piece would now appear rather flabby.
All of the themes that Williams would mine to such effect later on are all here: Alma's mental fragility, the lover John's insistent masculinity, the maliciousness of religious piety, small town envy. The play explores the human cost of getting head and heart out of balance. Alma suppresses her sexual desire finding refuge instead in higher feelings and wallowing in poetry and art, but it's a position she can't sustain when confronted with the reality of desire.
Matthew Needham provides strong support as the bad-boy John who tries to rescue her from herself and Anjana Vasan shines is a series of roles and delivers and deeply felt blues number also at a stand mic. To digress, recently both The Girl from the North Country and Fanny and Alexander have also featured cast members taking their positions at stand mics. Is this now a thing?
This is a deeply felt, ravishing, reinvention of a rarely seen play.