Rebecca Frecknall’s new revival of ‘Summer and Smoke’ by Tennessee Williams at the West End is absolutely raw and emotionally ravishing.
The brick wall at the back of the stage and the dusty arena help to create tension and a sensation of claustrophobia in the play. The semi-circular stage design of pianos draws attention to the important theme of time: that time comes around and goes around falling back onto itself. The configuration of the stage also gives a better acoustic. When the sound of the pianos comes in, the echo resonates and prolongs for some time giving the impression that some ghostly presence is present throughout the play. Almost as if each character is trying to detach themselves from their roots, to turn away from their past. This atmosphere of decay at the heart of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Summer and Smoke’ is emphasized by the use of light. Lee Curran brings us a mixture of orange and yellowish to the stage that merge with the brown of the pianos and the brick wall gives an aspect of ending of summer, beginning of the autumnal season. Often, when the white light appears exposing the truth, it clears away the idea of smoke that all colour orange creates.
The astonishing performance of Patsy Ferran as Alma Winemiller clearly reflects her hard work to bring Alma to life. Alma is constantly in a frenzy, nervously pinching and itching every single muscle of her body revealing her inner struggle between her sexual desire and the social conduct she must follow as a minister’s daughter. Ferran’s pace and energetic movement on stage, the way she positions her body towards us and the other characters, is detailed and thoroughly played out. She portrays Alma as the faded Summer. The Summer restrained in her social status and self-exigency in behaving like a lady, but also the Summer who wants to break free from class and live life. Unlike many other performances, Ferran knows what to do with her hands when she is on stage. All detail of Alma’s complex character and personality lie on Ferran’s hands when she is playing her.
When Alma is the soul, John is the body of the play. Perhaps, John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) is an even more complicated character than Alma. John is a less superficial character, the smoke that enwraps Alma’s soul in his attempt to rescue what is left of it. He tries to show Alma what she cannot see nor understand. However, Needham transmits this idea quite dully. John is a complicated character, one that needs understanding and space to grow and expand as the play develops and we do not see that in Needham’s performance. John is tenderer and fragile. He cares more for the meaningful and pleasurable things in life, whereas Alma cares only for appearances. Needham’s performance is way too passive and left with many loosing threads. With Ferran you cannot tell the difference between actor and character but Needham creates a distance between the two. Needham performance loses its brilliance when he creates a barrier between himself and John, instead of merging with the character. When John has a lot more to say, Nedham only focuses on representing the masculine idiotic and insensitive side of John.
Overall, the play is extraordinarily well produced and directed. Ferran’s debut at West End is one of a kind, incredibly talented and completely mesmerizing. The supporting cast is also very well-accomplished, especially Nancy Crane, doubling as both Alma’s mother and Mrs. Bassett, two women who lie behind the reason for Alma’s extremely complex character. Sometimes, Crane’s incredible performance overshadows Ferran’s, as Mrs. Winemiller helps us to look at Alma in a different light. When Crane’s performance combines with Ferran’s, they reveal how Alma lives tormented with the idea that she has robbed her mother’s youth away from her and is now wasting it too, by not living life the way it is supposed to be lived.