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Review | Summer and Smoke at The Duke of York’s Theatre

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Summer and Smoke at the Duke Of Yorks Theatre directed by Rebecca Frecknall - photo credit Marc Brenner.

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 as Alma Winemiller – Photo credit Marc Brenner.

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.

Matthew Needham as John Buchanan – Photo credit Marc Brenner.

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 at the Duke Of Yorks Theatre – photo credit Marc Brenner.

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.

Summer and Smoke at the Duke Of Yorks Theatre – photo credit Marc Brenner.

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.

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Tennessee Williams Summer and SmokeDirected by Rebecca Frecknall

Duke of York’s Theatre, Saturday 10th  November 2018 – Saturday 19th January 2019

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The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre

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Cherry Jones returns to the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Tiffany. This London revival of American theatre’s classic memory play may be the timely antidote we need.

Like a softening dust, olive-ashen light floats among fading Victorian-style lampshades, a writing desk, a frumpy crimson settee, the trove of animal statuettes centre-front. Looming in the background is a fire escape that ramrods to the rafters, its stage level serving as the entrance to this ‘hive-like’ tenement apartment in 1930s St Louis. John Tiffany’s revival of The Glass Menagerie begins with the expected direct address: a mature Tom (played by Michael Esper), now in control of his life and career, looks back at his past, piece by piece. ‘The play is memory,’ Tom says. Actually, it is a ghost story in which Tiffany uses sound, the swapping of hysteria for more lightness, and a touch of choreography to give shape to the ghostliness of Tennessee Williams’ ‘picture of my own heart,’ his first chapter of author-family autobiographies. The production, which premiered in New York in 2013, and then featured in last year’s Edinburgh Festival, is aided by composer Nico Muhly’s twinkling but minimalist backdrop that avoids any whiff of frothy whimsy.

Of tenacious mother hens in English letters, we find ourselves warming to Cherry Jones’ role as Amanda—more bustling Mrs Weasley than hustling Mrs Bennett—likely coming as a shock to viewers who grew up with the éminence grise of Katharine Hepburn’s embodiment, which roiled on daytime television. Jones’ exultation on stage suggests that she is the only actress capable of a Southern accent who didn’t originally aspire to play Blanche, Williams’ withering Southern belle in A Streetcar Named Desire. Jones lays an opulent Dixie brogue on thick. Her Amanda is a hardy prevailer, a nostalgist whose free-flowing dips into the past are not escape mechanisms strictly, but sustenance to carry her through the years of pain and social degradation created by bad choices made in first youth. In many ways, she does the dirty on Williams, stubbornly maintaining grace and love over the toxic interference that is necessary for us to want to run away from her, like Tom.

Kate O’Flynn once again harnesses her distinctive nasal squeak in order to intone Laura’s constant refrain: placating her mother’s stultifying concerns. ‘Mother, when you’re disappointed, you get that awful suffering look on your face, like the picture of Jesus’s mother in the museum,’ comes straight from O’Flynn’s nose, the last syllable of each phrase expanding like scales ringing on a xylophone and accentuating her character’s perpetual nervousness. While she is the play’s faint but central pulse who necessarily does not act, but is acted upon, O’Flynn’s Laura inherits some of the steely glint in her mother’s iron sunshine. The resignation that she unfurls after the Gentleman Caller, Jim (played with puppy-like exuberance by Brian J. Smith) kisses her, and then admits that he is already affianced, is a saddening jolt—like a cold shower of rain on a sunny day. ‘You—won’t—call again?’ she matter-of-factly states more than questions, letting the bomb hang in the air and then dropping it. Esper is better as a son than as narrator, especially when he is performing a kind of elevated honesty that mocks itself: ‘Well you’re right, Mother. I’m going to opium dens. Yes, mother. Opium dens. Dens of vice and criminal’s hangouts, mother, I am a hired assassin!’ Teasing his mother’s near-farcical enquiries into his twilight outings is all boyish shtick and put-on, a comic relief that increases our fondness for both characters but overshadows the story’s essential tension. In this way, Tom’s final abandonment seems less believable.

The choreographed gestures could come off as a gimmicky trick—Laura first emerges through a slit in the back of the sofa, for example, and, at the end, she dives back through. While Tiffany’s direction has been criticised for its departures from text-driven concerns, these moments are exquisite flourishes of reverie, especially the fleeting celestial duets between mother and daughter. If the production has a fault, it lies within Jones’ obvious pleasure in the role, left unchecked—if not emboldened—by the perceptible encouragement of the audience’s luxuriating smiles. The first act belongs entirely to her.

Today, much of the world expects awakening daily to the setting of the sun on a progressive era of American history, the country’s political reality steeped so heavily in its own neo-Victorian brand of backward-looking inspiration. Those hankering for warmer prelapsarian times will find temporary release in the luminescence that revives Williams’s first hit, which premiered in 1944—the middle of another period of deeply scarred American optimism. During the production’s two and a half hours, in a rare instance of cosmic collusion, a cell phone didn’t go off once.

By Megan Bradshaw


The Glass Menagerie

The Duke of York’s Theatre

Until 29 April 2017

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