Sunday, March 22, 2015


It was a dark and stormy night as we headed back to the Opera House for Tennessee William's Suddenly Last Summer.  Good night for it. Another huge (Cunard) boat bulged out into the Quay as lightening cracked the sky behind the Bridge.

I'm reasonably familiar with the film version (it's in our library), a Vidal / Mankiewicz mutant of the play, and of which Williams wasn't a fan. That's understandable. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay and Mankiewicz pushes the insanity button just a bit too far. Gratuitously from my perspective, although that is judging it from now, not then. But the asylum horrors in the film are pretty clichéd, not that the debate about some therapies and their mediaeval barbarism shouldn't be had, then or now.

Even beyond resorting to asylum extremes, the film always seemed awkward to me. Neither Taylor nor Hepburn satisfied, hindered by too much Hollywood at the expense of enough Williams.

Times have changed. Psychiatry has changed. Homosexuality is no longer a disease, in educated minds at least. Fundamentalists of all brushes remain an exception, but then I said educated. Lobotomy is out. From the here and now one is agog that it was ever in. But Electroconvulsive Therapy is still in, and while its application is more focused, its mechanism of action remains poorly understood. As was lobotomy, other than cutting out the bad stuff. Zapping neurones, delicate little fibres discharging and recharging by finely balanced ionic transfer, releasing their transmitters one to the other across micro-junctions of impossible complexity, each one a tiny part on a tangle of networks and connections that make us what we are, seems barely less crude. But it has its indictions, and can be said to work, even today. What will they say in another 50 years?

And I rabbit on about this because I've read that consciousness may well depend on the smoothness of traffic flow in this vast network of neuronal freeways, and that loss of consciousness is the interruption of flow - like a massive traffic jam in LA - and when the big pathways are disrupted, consciousness is lost. Awareness ceases. This raises the whole issue of what consciousness is, and by extension perception and awareness. And belief. Belief. And truth? Truth. What you perceived? remember? believe? want to believe? And what Suddenly Last Summer is about.

The film is also relevant because of the significant use of camera and video in this production which elevates, or lowers depending on who you read and how you feel about theatre, the experience of the audience.

Robyn Nevin (interviewed by Philip Adams, well worth a listen) credits her performance with not judging her character but delivering it as written for the audience to interpret. I saw a loving mother with umbilical cord uncut blinding herself from reality, desperately living in a world of her own perception. Hard to criticise really. Don't we all, in absolute terms? Hers was, expectedly, a masterful performance dominating the proceedings, and stage, until the balance of power changes and truth is given its voice.

It was Eryn Jean Norvill's journey as Catharine which really blew me away. From frightened uncertainty to the final great monologue, rivetting as she draws us deep into the calm still centre of her truth, the eye of this storm, this was a tremendous transformation and incredibly powerful. A work colleague could only say he just didn't want it to end.

Marl Leonard Winter's Dr Sugar was much in the Montgomery Clift style, Dr Smooth mainly a foil but whose vested interests lie elsewhere. And the final line is shockingly unresolved. Oh god, we are back at square one.

Paula Arundell (Sr Felicity) and Melita Jurisic (Miss Foxhill) were perfect casting. Susan Prior (Mrs Holly) and Brandon McClelland (George) were clunky and overbearing and gauche and so completely different (as characters) that I kept wondering if they were acting badly or brilliantly at being bad.

I've added so many production photos (from the Sydney Theatre Company's Facebook page) in an attempt to give some idea of the importance of video in the staging. Traditionalists claim it is robbing live theatre of its special art. This is the third time I've seen it used, after STC's The Maids (which post never made it, where the camera was never intrusive but then didn't especially add to the experience which for me was all about Cate, who needs no camera let me tell you) and Bevoir's The Glass Menagerie (where the camera added a dimension of delicate emotional enhancement to wonderful effect).

Kip Williams took things much further. The opening 20 minutes is all on a screen occupying the whole proscenium, although the actors make their entrance in real size in front of the 'screen' to walk through a door in it into the garden. Actually there's two screens - the one we are watching, and one at the back on the action being filmed behind the first, and the combined effect of seeing the second as a backdrop gave a wonderful 3D effect, the filmed action between two screens both receiving different versions of what is happening in real time, if that makes any sense at all.

In a major coup de theatre, the screen revolves away and the actors live in the garden continue, with the rear screen now adding the extra dimensions of power, emotion, uncertainty, etc. Finally, as the acceleration to the frenzied climax increases, the revolve returns so the screen occupies the full proscenium again climaxing, with blindingly brilliant lighting, in the mesmerising slow zoom into Catharine's soul.

Multi-screening of which I've been sceptical worked well for me.

There were times when the camera man and assistant were clearly visible on stage, de rigour to show-how these days, and I found it intrusive. Otherwise, the jarring moments came when you went from full screen to plain stage, and how little the actors seemed!

I guess it is a matter of balance, and that will change from director to director, play to play, audience to audience. It's certainly here to stay I'd warrant.


Susan Scheid said...

I've seen I think one production that used projections something on this order. It worked reasonably well, though I still tended to find it distracting. Why, it seemed to me, if you've come to a live performance, would you want to look at the actors on a screen? Your description of this, however, and the photographs, do show that it can be effective. As you say, it's all a matter of balance.

wanderer said...

Sue, I've surprised myself by my reactions - mostly very positive, and at times overwhelming. Live theatre will change because it can.

What next is the question. Concerts? With cameras showing the live broadcast live in the hall as well, close ups and all. Just the conductor? Add in the Oboe? Oh here comes the horns ...

Anyway, the generation raised on multi-screening will take it in their stride I expect and anyone who can bear to watch American television (I can't, exceptions apply - John Stewart) with constant movement, exploding stars and stripes, fuelled by sugar hits and ADD whatevers, will need more to focus them than just the words, or the notes.