Feature: The dark heart of the deep South

PinkNews Staff Writer June 19, 2007
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Amy Bourke

After three years away from the West End, Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer is back in London, performed by the capital’s oldest amateur theatre group.

The Tower Theatre group, who also recently revived Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, will be putting on the play which was made famous by Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn in the 1959 film.

The story of Suddenly Last Summer would be familiar to any fans of A Streetcar Named Desire, debatably Williams’ most famous play.

Themes of love, death, mental illness and homosexuality abound, wrapped in Williams’ trademark Southern Gothic style and set in his home of New Orleans.

The play centres on Catherine Holly, a young girl who appears to go mad when she witnesses the death of her cousin Sebastian.

But Sebastian’s mother, Violet Venable, is desperate to cover up the truth about her son’s death and homosexuality.

A malicious and controlling woman, she believes that she and Sebastian were “a famous couple.”

Catherine has been hospitalised in a mental institution, and her aunt Violet threatens to lobotomise her, in an attempt to shut her mouth.

But under the influence of a truth serum, Catherine spills all the grisly details of Sebastian’s death.

Tania Kereishi, 25, plays Catherine in the Tower Theatre company’s version of the play.

She is a drama student who is currently seeking professional work.

She says: “Catherine is sensitive and intelligent. She is not afraid to tell the truth and is not as bound by convention. It is this lucidity that scares others around her. I am hoping that I will do the part justice.”

Suddenly, Last Summer is a one-act play that was originally designed to be combined withSomething Unspoken.

The Tower Theatre Company version is only an hour and twenty minutes long with no interval.

The play is essentially two long monologues filled with drama, suspense and pathos, which can be emotionally draining.

Director Barrie Addenbrooke says:

“In his memoirs Williams wrote that ‘There are passages in Suddenly, Last Summer which are perhaps as well written as anything I’ve done.’

“It is one of his best pieces of writing and certainly has the enduring power to stand alone as a singular play.”

He adds: “I think doing it together with Something Unspoken would have been too much for an audience, and the two are very rarely performed together now.”

The plot of Suddenly, Last Summer has parallels with Tennessee Williams’ own life.

A gay man in the Deep South, he understood the pressures that existed as a result of living in a less tolerant age, and the all-too-often tragic consequences for many young men.

But the character of Sebastian is far from a victim. In many ways, he is the architect of his own horrific downfall.

For the character of Catherine it is believed that Williams took inspiration from his sister, Rose.

She was a paranoid schizophrenic who spent most of her life in mental hospitals.

When it became clear that therapy was not helping, Williams’ parents authorised a prefrontal lobotomy to be performed on Rose.

The operation was performed in 1937; only a year after the first lobotomy was ever performed, and before the consequences of this controversial treatment had been fully explored.

Rose was incapacitated for the rest of her life, and Williams was devastated.

He himself suffered from depression, and some believe that what happened to Rose was the trigger for the alcoholism that eventually killed him.

Tania Kereishi says that this autobiographical element of the play is what drew her to the character.

“Most of us experience a detachment from social convention at some point in our lives,” she explains.

“The way we as a society treat those perceived to have a mental illness is barbaric.”

But the star of the Tower Theatre play is Jill Batty who plays Violet Venables, a delicate and domineering old Southern dame who insists on a frozen daiquiri every day at five in the afternoon, and has the manic laughter of a true manipulator.

Batty is a veteran of the Tower Theatre company, having appeared in a wide variety of their plays over the past 30 years; she leads the younger actors effortlessly.

Barrie Addenbrooke tells why readers should go and see their play:

“Tennessee Wiliams was the one of the first authors to use gay characters in his plays when it was still extremely taboo to do so, and as such he is one of the first real gay icons.

“His work connects emotionally, and still resonates with people today.”

Suddenly, Last Summer will be performed by the Tower Theatre Company at the Bridewell Theatre, Fleet Street from Tuesday 19th June until Saturday 23rd June. Ticket prices are £11 and £9 for concessions.

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