Summer and Smoke
What do the words ‘summer’ and ‘smoke’ evoke? Oppressive heat? Fire? Smouldering passions? Exploring some of these connotations go some way to opening up this lesser-known Tennessee Williams play, first performed in 1948 and currently running at the Duke of York‘s Theatre, directed by Rebecca Frecknall.
The set is stunning: a striking visual metaphor for the journey we take with preacher’s daughter Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran) as she attempts to understand herself and her connection to John Buchanan (Matthew Needham).
Pianos with exposed workings form a cage-like semicircle and surround the action throughout. Light is used beautifully (Lee Curran) to create an intensely claustrophobic and intimate atmosphere. The various cast members playing chords chime perfectly with the discordant feeling of this whole play.
The desire which sits in the anxious heart of this story is dimly lit and intangible. The design (Tom Scott)and sound (Carolyn Downing) try to echo this, party successfully.
Where are we? Cocooned inside Alma’s angst-ridden mind? The lack of a concrete sense of space, place and time worked well, on reflection, in suggesting our timeless struggle to navigate the nature of physical and spiritual connections. But in the theatre it was not easy to care.
Williams’ abstract and flickering poetry, in this play, is perhaps more suited to reading than live performance.
The narrative felt less realistic than in more well-known plays such as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. Lighting, sound, colour and movement helped to tell the story but emotional investment was left wanting. I didn’t care as much as I wanted to.
Perhaps Ferran’s childlike appearance made the character of Alma vulnerable (the painful opening scene in which she struggles to sing through a panic attack is brilliantly done) but less easy to ‘buy into’ as an ageing spinster.
There is no doubting the continued beauty and importance of Williams’ work. This tortured playwright’s searing and uncomfortable poetry retains a power to force us to confront difficult questions about ourselves. Conflicting impulses, repressed desires, internal conflict – as well as conflict in all of our relationships – can never be captured with clarity. Neither should they be. Like light, summer heat, love and smoke they are delicately indefinable. Any play which forces an audience to engage with some of these questions and ideas has to be worth watching.
Running to 19th January 2019