From time to time the BBC screen a classic piece of filmed theatre from their archive and then put it up on their iPlayer for a while. I wish they would do that more often, but I suppose that’s what Britbox is for. Recently they showed Warren Mitchell’s stellar performance in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman (still available) and now comes that other giant of American 20th century theatre, Tennessee Williams. His highly wrought melodrama Suddenly Last Summer may not be the most well-known of his plays, but it is unmistakably his and with star quality oozing from the cast (for one thing it has Maggie Smith in it) and direction by Richard Eyre this is definitely a treat to be savoured.
Violet Venable (Maggie Smith) lives in the steamy heat of the Garden District of New Orleans and is a woman on a mission. Her primary aim is to protect the memory and reputation of her deceased son Sebastian. He died in an horrific incident in Spain the previous summer witnessed by Venables’ niece Catherine who she has confined to a lunatic asylum in order to keep her quiet. Her current plan is to have Catherine lobotomised (a fate which befell Williams’ own sister) and as the play opens she is politely but firmly blackmailing/bribing (take your pick) Doctor Cukrowicz to carry out the operation in return for financial support for his practice. Mrs Venable brings her niece to her Gothic mansion of a house in order for the medic to assess her; when he administers a truth serum, the young woman tells all. And a scandalously disreputable tale it is, exposing the underbelly of polite society in particular and humanity in general.
As such the play follows some of the well-worn tropes of Williams’ other work (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, etc.) though in this particular example they seem more condensed and focused – in effect it is Tennessee Williams distilled. The piece has a heavy reliance on symbolism particularly on that of ravenous consumption. There’s a long passage about predatory birds and the Venable’s hothouse contains insectivorous plants such as the Venus fly trap. The various characters often verbally and even physically attack each other with savagery and with a desire to rip each other apart; “cut this hideous story from her brain” shrieks the older woman who seems as deranged as she accuses her niece of being. All of this, of course, points to the sacrificial fate of Sebastian – there’s a prominently displayed painting of the martyred saint who is his namesake.
Maggie Smith plays Violet Venable with more than a hint of the imperious hauteur and waspish deviousness which would later become her character’s trademark in Downton Abbey. She is completely believable as a suffocating mother who dotingly hides her son’s foibles from the world. And, hey, this is Maggie Smith – always a pleasure. Natasha Richardson gives as good as she gets and makes an excellent job of Catherine’s climactic narrative which is made even more intense than usual by the use of extreme close up. Rob Lowe brings a touch of Hollywood glamour to what is essentially the referee’s role in this no holds barred slugging match. In truth the character is a bit underdrawn which doesn’t give Lowe much to work with but it’s a competent performance of a rather bland role. Also somewhat underwritten and underused is Richard E. Grant as Catherine’s brother George, who is more interested in his inheritance than his sister’s welfare. Grant channels the indignant energy he brought to Withnail but the script doesn’t give him much room for manoeuvre.
As already observed director Richard Eyre gets the camera up close which ratchets up the tension. There seems to be rather over liberal use of Vaseline on the camera lens – unless it’s just because these days we’re so used to seeing things in HD quality. This early 1990s production is a good deal better than Hollywood’s earlier attempt (Katherine Hepburn/Elizabeth Taylor/Montgomery Clift) and honours more fully Williams’ original storyline and intentions. Even if for no other reason it’s chance to see Maggie Smith in action – or did I already mention that?