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Suddenly Last Summer - Review

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by Aridhi Anderson (subscribe)
Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at
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A haunting and richly poetic play about power and truth
Violet Venable is a grieving mother who has lost her poet son, Sebastian, in mysterious circumstances. She speaks dotingly of his ageless charm, of his chastity, and of the poetry that permeated his whole life. She speaks of these things to Doctor Cukrowicz (Doctor "Sugar") as they walk around Sebastian's complex and exotic garden, an artistic creation filled with symbols that probably reflected how he experienced the world. Doctor Sugar is a charismatic young surgeon, engaged in this conversation with Mrs Venable in the hope of procuring her financial assistance to sustain and expand his medical practice. She is eager to provide this, in return for a small favour. She wants the doctor to lobotomize her "hysterical" niece, Catharine Holly, and in doing so effectively silence her "babbling" about her late cousin Sebastian's gruesome death, of which she claims to be the sole eyewitness. Violet Venable may have lost her son, but she isn't going to be a passive victim of fate. She is proud, powerful, and ruthless - determined to preserve her son's honour at any cost.

Jennifer Vuletic as Violet Venable. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.
Jennifer Vuletic as Violet Venable. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams is a haunting, horrific, and richly poetic play with a focused yet deeply nuanced plot. Red Stitch Actors Theatre and Little Ones Theatre bring together an incredible pool of talent to put on a breathtaking production of this show, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. From the very beginning, the haunting music (by Dan Nixon) and classy yet distinctly wild set design (by Eugyeene Teh) set the mood for what lies ahead in this 90 minute performance. The haze effects and lighting (by Katie Sfetkidis) perfectly complement the mystery and suspense of the story. The actors' performances are enthralling, especially the female leads, Jennifer Vuletic who plays Violet Venable, and Kate Cole who plays Catharine. The show proves to be a compelling, absorbing experience while maintaining a strong fourth wall, allowing the audience to remain safe spectators, invested in the unfurling events from the outside.

Kate Cole and Caroline Lee. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.
Kate Cole and Caroline Lee. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.

Violet Venable is undoubtedly powerful, and she appears to hold the fate of every character in her hands. She has had Catharine institutionalized already, she has the power to exclude Catharine's family from their share in Sebastian's estate that their hopes are fixed on, and she has the power to withhold substantial financial help from Doctor Sugar if he does not comply with her wishes and lobotomize her niece. What she cares about controlling the most, however, is the narrative about her son. Her glowing words about him begin to invite scepticism early on when she declares his life to be entirely about poetry, but also admits that his output is limited to one single poem a year. She makes claims about the purity and perfection of their mutual devotion, reflected in their annual summertime travels together but confesses that last summer he chose to leave her behind and travel with his cousin Catharine instead - the mistake that, in her opinion, led to his demise.

Charles Purcell as Doctor Sugar. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.
Charles Purcell as Doctor Sugar. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.

This narrative, and indeed Mrs Venable's control over everything, begins to unravel with the arrival of Catharine, her nemesis. Catharine is just as strong-willed as her aunt, despite sharing none of her power or privilege. She will speak, even if from a position of absolute disadvantage, and she will be heard. Catharine reveals an entirely different side to Sebastian - a much more sinister side. In her version of events, he is opportunistic, wildly entitled, and far from being chaste. She is all but subtle as she calls out his true intention in travelling either with his mother or with her - the desire to use them as bait, to "procure" for him. She substantiates this claim by pointing out why he chose not to travel with his mother that year - because she had recently suffered a stroke, which had affected her facial appearance on one side. She also tells of the white bathing suit her cousin forced her to wear at the private beach they frequented together, which turned transparent when wet and drew attention from men who then came over to them from the neighbouring public beach. There's a lot she leaves unsaid, which the context and following events make abundantly clear.

Kate Cole as Catharine Holly. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.
Kate Cole as Catharine Holly. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.

Catharine's testimony is powerfully scripted and is performed brilliantly by Kate Cole. It ties together and resolves the drama, while also opening up a slew of new questions and reflections that the audience carry home with them to ponder for days afterwards. Doctor Sugar, upon hearing Catharine's testimony, urges Mrs Venable (and by extension, the audience) "to consider that perhaps the girl's story might be true". This is a profound message in and of itself, but it also opens up reflections about the nature of truth and how it is known. The entire play is about Sebastian Venable - the invisible protagonist who gives motive and purpose to every character and movement in this play and yet never once speaks for himself. All we have of his own testimony is the symbols he has left behind in his garden and in his poetry. But who is Sebastian Venable? Is he the saint his mother paints him to be, or the monster his cousin reveals him to be? Is there more to him than we are shown in these 90 minutes?

In one sense, Sebastian Venable holds more power than anyone else in this play, being the only discernible soft spot in his mother's life, and also the only person that Catharine was unable to emotionally resist. But in another sense, he has no power at all, least of all with regard to himself. His gruesome end is foreshadowed early on in the play, in a vision of newly hatched baby sea turtles racing towards the ocean in a bid to survive, but brutally preyed upon by black skies full of ravenous, flesh-eating birds. Was he, then, as a closeted homosexual living in unfavourable times, perhaps doomed to be preyed upon as he raced towards the disastrous avenues he found to explore and express himself? We can only speculate because we cannot hear his side from him: he is dead.

A gentle heads-up for anyone who might appreciate knowing this in advance: This play was written in the 1950s, and reflects the values of that time. There are several disturbing themes and references in this play, including serious racism, which is faithfully portrayed.
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Why? Haunting and powerful theatre
When: 5 October - 4 November 2018
Phone: 613 9533 8083
Where: Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, St Kilda East, Vic 3183
Cost: $28-$55
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