A poetic vision of human nature and our existential struggle to forge the middle ground between body and soul. After writing his (in)famous A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams gave birth to Summer and Smoke in 1948, and The London Magazine had the pleasure of attending the latest adaptation by director Rebecca Frecknall held at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Summer and Smoke begins as an unruly exploration on human appetites, specifically focusing on sexual appetites and how suppressed desires can formulate into nervous dispositions.
Patsy Ferran did a superb job of embodying William’s Alma Winemiller – a frantic, naive and anxious being plagued by constant panic attacks and a permanently jittery disposition. Unable to understand her primal desires, she is simultaneously traumatised and aroused by even the slightest sexual inclination from her male peers. We come to find that her overly sensitive attitude is rather jarring, wanting her to act out on the primal desires that she fails to acknowledge rather than restricting herself in her need for piety and self-preservation. Though she possesses a humorous undertone, Alma is at large a devastating mirror for women carrying the burden of shame imposed by a rather soulless patriarchal world.
Where Alma centres around the soul, William’s John Buchanan represents bodily desires. John is the personification of vibrant male energy turned wild in a stagnant and entrapping society. Matthew Needham‘s performance was powerful enough that the audience actually suffers as we witness John lead a path of selfishness, leaving only devastation and destruction in his wake. He, the archetypal southern man, is completely opposite to the prim and proper archetypal southern woman who is innocent, delicate, devotional and self-sacrificial. Male culture loud and exciting against the sheepishness of domestication. Always judging one another, and yet, the irony is that both are acting out of fear, though it is a fear for completely different things.
“… We operate under the misguided belief that the soul is bodiless, and the body is soulless..”
The two juxtaposing psychologies establish the uneasy link between the body and the soul at the heart of all human experience. We operate under the misguided belief that the soul is bodiless, and the body is soulless. Spirit and flesh against each other. Rather, the two require a co-existence which we do not allow for. Christianity demanding humility and purity where male tradition demands competitiveness and aggressiveness, the two are never given the space to intertwine.
Summer and Smoke’s second act is centred around metamorphosis, as self-destructive tendencies reach a devastating climax.
The emotional presence of Patsy Ferran playing Alma was pretty outstanding as she shifts from nervous, frantic, and jittery into a deeply melancholic sadness. Loneliness and rejection are at the heart of her metamorphosis, with no stable personality possible in such a hostile and confining environment. We knew that change was going to come as John presented the audience with the idea that alma possesses a trapped doppelgänger at the beginning of the play – the second half is thus our witnessing of the doppelgänger gradually coming into consciousness. Alma becomes defiant against authority, and as cold emotionally, spiritually and verbally as winter, her suppressed desires becoming explicit as she recognizes her own divided nature.
“Tell them I’ve changed, and you’re waiting to see in what way” she exclaims.
Much to our dismay, even though Alma moves past propriety and sets a path towards sensual pleasures, John moves towards tradition and away from bodily pleasures. A fatal passing of two ships at night, it seems fated that John and Alma’s two worlds will never collide.
Frecknall’s dimly-lit and atmospheric pays homage to Williams original intention for a more sentimental than realistic world. Frecknall was experimental with her use of prop, occupying the stage with five beautifully rustic grand pianos that provided the acoustic soundtrack. Though we did not witness the extravagant skies and colour harmonies that Williams stressed for, we experienced a new and innovative touch on a classic that highly paid off. The actors valiantly embodied their roles and offered acute representations of Williams symbolic characters – perhaps the only jarring characterisation was the portrayal of the Mexican characters which felt a little outdated in their drunken misogyny, though Frecknall was staying faithful to Williams whose characterisation is a reflection of his times. Nevertheless, Anjanna Vasan provided a beautifully tantalizing portrayal of they young seductress Rosa Gonzales, a familiar face seen in TV series Black Mirror. The passion of our playwright Tennessee Williams was apparent in the very fibres of this recent adaptation.
A heart-breaking play, with a powerful symbolic message on human experience; do not miss Rebecca Frecknall’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams highly-acclaimed Summer and Smoke, running until January 19th.
Words by Briony Willis.
Tennessee Williams Summer and Smoke, Directed by Rebecca Frecknall
Duke of York’s Theatre, Saturday 10th November 2018 – Saturday 19th January 2019
To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.
Want to win £500 and be published in the UK’s oldest literary review? Enter our Short Story Prize!