Often when student plays are described as ambitious, it is a euphemism for 'not very good' or 'nice try'. The Experimental Theatre Club's production of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, however, is ambitious in the entirely positive sense of the word: it is bold, and boundary-breaking. It experiments with sound, with movement, with casting, with nudity, with costume, in a bid to draw in the audience in the most all-encompassing way possible. Because stripped back, Suddenly Last Summer is a play composed almost entirely of storytelling; long stretches of monologue delve into the characters' different experiences of the same events from the past.
The smoke hanging in the air of the Playhouse throughout the production evokes this heavy pull towards a dark and clouded history. The action on stage is just the vehicle for the retrospective narratives, and the audience must absorb the narration, deciding for themselves whose account to trust and where the truth, if it exists, can be found. Mary Higgins, who plays the mistrusted and struggling Catharine, is pushed and pulled around the stage, tethered to the aggressive care-givers in the asylum by the bands around her waist, and tethered to the past by the memories which they refuse to believe. Higgins' Catharine is complex; we are shown a character who is vulnerable but retains a sense of passion and a spark. Importantly, there is a compassion towards Catharine which is fostered by the production and Higgins' sensitive portrayal.
Those familiar with the work of the ETC will have recognised plenty of the faces seen when flicking through the programme, but the stand out performance of the production was newbie Derek Mitchell, who physically and emotionally embodied the ageing Violet Venable with huge skill. His movement and vocal delivery were impeccable and completely absorbing; no small feat in such a thorny character - she is proud, unkind, vulnerable, unhappy and grieving. Mitchell never let his performance drop. In fact, the scene in the second half where Violet and her nurse clash with Mrs Holly (played with talent, depth and consistency by Ell Potter, whose cold, ostentatious interaction with Catharine expands our understanding of Catharine's emotional upbringing) and Aaron Skates' George Holly (who gave a strong performance) was the best in the piece, with its tight choreography and engagement from all involved. These moments of inherent choreography were perhaps more successful than the explicit physical theatre sections at the beginning of the production. The actors moved around each other with remarkable collective cooperation, their words weaving through the scene unobtrusively, flowing forward until the abrupt end to the section.
Another element where the production excelled was the soundtrack, performed live by Garden Building and Georgia Bruce, whose collaboration appears to have been fruitful. The result which was in equal parts beautiful, haunting, and intense, provided an excellent companion to the action onstage.
There was an understandable first-night blip at the end of the first half, making it unclear whether the interval had started. If anything, though, sitting in a lit auditorium in silence, wondering whether something was going to happen onstage, only added to the tense atmosphere instilled by the production. It occurred to me that it may have been deliberate!
The Experimental Theatre Club have done it again; Suddenly Last Summer is a real experience: one which leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach and questions reverberating around your head. Any piece of theatre which provides such a reaction has to have done well.