In 1943, Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose, diagnosed with schizophrenia and confined to an asylum, was lobotomised. This event was deeply traumatising for Williams, and elements of his sister appear in many of his female characters, including Catharine Holly, the troubled protagonist of Suddenly Last Summer, who is accused by her aunt, Violet Venable, of causing her son Sebastian’s death the previous summer.
Catharine is fragile, a previously gregarious young woman driven to depression and depersonalisation in the wake of devastating trauma. Mrs. Venable, meanwhile, is desperate to preserve her idealised image of her son and will do anything to stop Catharine telling the truth of what happened.
It’s the complexity of these female characters, and their responses to trauma, that drew director Zoe Black to the play. “The message I wanted to get across is that it’s not simple,” she tells me. “People’s reactions aren’t one and the same to trauma like that”; while Catharine recedes into herself, Mrs. Venable seethes with “vitriolic rage”.
And both lead actresses emphasise the relatability of these characters, even though they respond to trauma in ways you might not expect. “I found a lot of sympathy with her character,” says Maya Achan, who plays Mrs. Venable. Although she emphasises that her actions are ultimately wrong, she can understand “that feeling of wanting to convince yourself so badly that something is true because it’s underpinned your whole life”.
Despite the sharp reality of this trauma, however, the play is often poetic rather than literal, something emphasised by the show’s abstract production design. “We came up with this idea of a monochromatic aesthetic,” says Ed Bankes, who plays Catharine’s brother. The actors are dressed in grayscale, each with a symbolic red accessory. Ed also designed the play’s distinctive poster, whose menacing jungle-like bars are going to be echoed by projections of black shapes within the performance itself. He emphasises that “we’re not trying to make this a realistic interior – the poetry of the piece doesn’t demand that”, instead highlighting the “claustrophobic, stifling” atmosphere they’re trying to create.
Nature also figures heavily in the play, with all the action taking place in Sebastian’s garden. But this garden isn’t a welcoming haven – Williams describes the plants as looking like “organs of a body, torn out”, and Zoe emphasises that she wants to retain this tension between nature and violence. She talks about “man’s desire to control nature”, and compares it to the way the Venables try to impose order upon the chaos of their discordant family: “We try to make things work, we try to love people who we’re told to love, when, actually, we might have nothing in common with them, and this is the result of that.”
This bleak perspective on family and love runs throughout the play, and Catharine herself says that “we all use each other and that’s what we think of as love”. The actress playing her, Phoebe Segal, says that “from Catharine’s experience, it’s very true, because she’s not someone who’s had a lot of love in her life”. Sebastian is “the only one who’s shown her kindness”, yet even this relationship is “fraught” and ends in tragedy.
Catharine’s agonised existence is one of the most compelling parts of the play, particularly since no-one will believe her story, and Ed notes that, in the world of post-truth politics, one reason the play remains relevant is that “it’s about the importance of having your story told, particularly if you’re a vulnerable, abused woman”. With powerful lessons about trauma, family and the importance of truth, Suddenly Last Summer promises to be a thoughtful, striking production.