Sunday, 30 August 2009

Suddenly, Last Summer (1993)

Half a lifetime ago, I was mesmerised by the BBC production of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly, Last Summer". It starred Maggie Smith, Natasha Richardson and Rob Lowe, and to be honest I have no idea why I watched it. It is quite likely that I already had seen the film version with Katharine Hepburn. I loved the suffocating atmosphere, the faded sunset orange range of colours that inhabit it and the clash between the two actresses. It was a found memory.

Last night I watched it again, projected at the BFI. I can't say this showed it at its best light. Television from the early 1990s doesn't look very well project into a screen, even if the screen is not terribly big (and the NFT2 isn't). It highlights the technical differences between the two mediums (film and TV) simply by showing the amount of detail lost. Nevertheless, all I said above holds. It is still a fantastic version of the play. I have now seen the film a few times, saw a stage version not terribly long ago and have become fairly familiar with Williams' universe.

Last summer (ok, it should be the previous summer, but it doesn't sound as appropriate), Sebastian Venable broke with tradition and instead of going abroad with his mother, took his cousin Cathy instead. By the end of the summer he was dead. These are the facts. The play shows the clash between the two women - each wanting to tell her truth, and although we end believing in Cathy, truth is on the eye of the beholder. Cathy suggests that Sebastian was a predatory gay man, Mrs Venable says he was a chaste, asexual being. The stakes are high - if she loses, Cathy will be lobotomised.

Natasha Richardson gives Cathy a sexual presence of a woman who, as she says herself, had her coming out (as in a d├ębutante's coming out) in the Latin Quarter of New Orleans before she came out to the city's society. She yarns for a freedom that has been denied, but Richardson leaves us wondering if she really is all there (something Elizabeth Taylor couldn't show in 1959 or even wasn't able to do as actress). On the other side of the ring is Maggie Smith. She is the only actress (or actor) that I have seen eclipse Judi Dench. To say that she is one of the great living actresses is an understatement, and she proves it here. Imposing, aristocratic and sure of the power of her money to buy and manipulate all other, her Mrs Venable is a poised tower of strength. But suddenly, you see the cracks - during Cathy's telling of her version, her face, and her eyes, scream with horror, a silent horror, of someone being confronted with facts they have chosen to ignore. Which made me wonder if this particular text doesn't work better in mediums where you can have close-ups.

In the middle of the two women, there's Dr Cukrowicz. It's a thankless part. He doesn't do anything throughout, just bridge between one or the other of the leading ladies. But Rob Lowe really stinks. Maybe because Smith and Richardson are so good, he comes out even worse. He really just looks pretty...

I really would like to see more plays adapted to TV (and the key word is adapted). There was such a good tradition in British television, and it seems to have died out. But I guess I am in a minority, and that times have changed, etc. Oh well...

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