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Tennessee Williams continues to tour open spaces

PUBLISHED: 15:06 06 November 2017 | UPDATED: 15:06 06 November 2017

Cathy Edwards-Gill in Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams. Picture: MIKE ALLMEY

Cathy Edwards-Gill in Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams. Picture: MIKE ALLMEY

Mike Allmey

Tennessee Williams relished creating turbulent situations for troubled people. David Henshall talks to director Cathy Edwards-Gill about her production of Suddenly Last Summer and how Williams created characters which audiences could identify with

Yves Green (Mrs Venable), left, and Joe Edwards (Dr Sugar) in Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams. Picture: MIKE ALLMEY Yves Green (Mrs Venable), left, and Joe Edwards (Dr Sugar) in Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams. Picture: MIKE ALLMEY

The history of literature, drama and crime has taught us that there are no lengths a mother will not go to for the love of a son. The wealthy Violet Venable is unquestionably one of them.

Her grown up boy Sebastian has died in mysterious circumstances and his cousin Catherine, who was there at the time, claims to have seen what happened. The trouble is that her story is so horrible and shocking that Mrs Venable is determined to prevent it being circulated and Sebastian’s name blackened.

She has had Catherine incarcerated in Doctor Sugar’s mental home, guarded by a nun, and has promised the brain surgeon a rich endowment for his institution if he will perform an operation on Catherine to stop her spilling the beans about her son, a story she regards as false and refuses to believe.

This is the situation presented by Tennessee Williams in his 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer, which is set in 1939, a time when lobotomy operations were thought a new and exciting solution to mental problems, offering peace of mind to turbulent people.

And Dr Sugar is not the only one with a vested interest in keeping Catherine quiet. Her mother, Mrs Holly and brother George, both impoverished, have each been left £50,000 in Sebastian’s will and Mrs Venable is sitting on the money until Catherine has the operation. So there is additional pressure from them for her to change her story.

The question is how will Dr Sugar deal with this knife-edge situation? Mrs Venable will do anything to protect her own and her son’s reputation and the doctor’s clinic needs the money. But he really should be trying to get at the truth behind Sebastian’s death and this is what is gradually uncovered in Open Space Theatre Company’s production of the play which is about to tour North Suffolk and South Norfolk.

Cathy Edwards-Gill, a professional actress and director, has the seminal role of Catherine and says of Suddenly Last Summer. “It’s not a long piece but it will be a powerful evening. It’s quite a shocking story, horrifying and terrifying.”

How does she see Catherine? “She’s a truthful and honest, although she’s been quite promiscuous in the past. She describes fondly one of her exciting one-night stands. But Mrs Venable dislikes her, sees her as a vandal who doesn’t stick to the social norms.

“I quite like and admire her because she’s true to herself. She doesn’t play by the rules, is a little bit wild and naughty and says it how it is. It makes her appealing and you can see why Sebastian liked her. She has something a bit different but she’s vulnerable as well.

“She didn’t like some of the things Sebastion asked her to do – and there’s the added vulnerability of being placed in this mental institution, her future uncertain if the doctor doesn’t believe her story. I have huge sympathy for her. She’s sometimes quite funny about her situation and can see the awful humour in the grimly dry lines she has.”

Homosexuality, it is strongly indicated, is at the root of the matter, something that in 1939 many people denied even existed, in direct contrast to today’s gay honesty. “The play would have been regarded as shocking in the Fifties and I think it is still shocking but it is full full of the wonderful hypnotising poetry the Williams is so good at.”

Yves Green plays Violet Venable with Joe Edwards as Dr. Sugar, Sally Goodsell as Mrs Holly and Ben Willmott as brother George. Gilly Mullan is Sister Felicity, the nun, with Annie Chapman as Miss Foxhill.

Suddenly Last Summer is at Wingfield Barns, 9 Nov (tickets 01379 384505); Beccles Public Hall, 10 (01502 770066); Huntingfield Hub, 11 (01986 799130); Halesworth Cut, 18 (0300 3033 211); Diss Corn Hall, 23 (01379 652241); Lowestoft Seagull, 24 (01502 589726); Bungay Fisher, 25 (01986 897130). All 7.30pm start.

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