Almeida Theatre, London – until 7 April 2018
It’s been one week since I saw Summer & Smoke and I’m still struggling to find the words. Not because I remain unsure of my reaction to it – far from it; this production is an extraordinary, soaring study of the fragility and strength of a woman’s spirit – rather I am worried that I will resort to clichés and hackneyed phrases as I try to convey the brilliance and innovation of this production. And this show deserves far better than that.
Not that I was familiar with the play before I visited the Almeida, though I, of course, am fully aware of the style and reputation of its writer. So, it is interesting to me that Tennessee Williams did refer to its central character, Alma, as his favourite creation, “she seemed to exist somewhere in my being”.
And that’s a revealing, almost curious, statement as Alma has a complex fragility – a sort of psychosomatic illness that reveals itself in panic attacks and palpitations. In many ways, she seemed to me almost the physical manifestation of Laura’s glass figurines from The Glass Menagerie. Alma is fragile, too delicate to touch. A woman seemingly trapped under glass. What an intriguing central character, and a fascinating woman through which to explore a slow but sure sexual awakening.
For Alma (Patsy Ferran) is the Minister’s daughter in a small town in turn-of-the-20th-century Mississippi. The top button on her perfectly pressed shirt is securely fastened and her skirt length shows only a hint of ankle. Yet this young woman is in love – and in love with the most unsuitable of men. John (Matthew Needham) is the son of the town’s doctor. Noble enough, but his scandalous trips to the out-of-town casino, and the company he keeps, has the women-folk gossiping.
To Williams, this play is that clash between the earthy passions personified in John, and the purity of the soul and the divine, personified by Alma. Yet in director Rebecca Frecknall’s hands, I felt this was a fascinating examination of the perils facing women who want, even need, the same carnal desires as men.
Alma is confused – the battle between what she wants and how society / her father / her town demand she behaves is almost killing her. The stress of wanting what she is told she cannot have almost literally suffocates her. She sees the women John goes with, and in Patsy’s wide eyes we see the confused mix of envy and judgment she has for their looseness, their wayward morals – their sexual freedom.
It’s that glass menagerie feeling all over again – women must be kept sacred, women must remain pure. Women must not be sullied by men. One crack, one flaw, and the figurine is ruined.
Alma isn’t just fighting her own mind here, she’s fighting society’s very conditioning of all women. And Patsy’s performance is towering. You can sense every catch of her breath whenever John’s name comes up in polite conversation, and you can almost feel her heightened heart rate as John steps closer to measure her pulse.
The production design from Tom Scutt is atmospheric – realism set aside for a semi-circle of pianos surrounding a bare stage of sand and upturned chairs – but the intoxicating heat of the Mississippi summer and the simmering sexual awakening of the young Alma is potent, accentuated by the sprinkles of piano notes paired with shimmering lights to exhibit the Galveston breeze, to a breathlessly bluesy cover of Portishead’s Glory Box as the heat of the summer sun brings the sweat as well as the sensual desire out of Alma’s pores.
Tennessee’s text is like poetry, even the play’s title drawing reference from Alma’s final passionate last-ditch attempt to make John realise she has set aside her primness for his love; “..now I have changed my mind, or the girl who said ‘no’, — she doesn’t exist any more, she died last summer — suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her.”
And while I don’t want to wholly spoil the finale for those who have the privilege of a ticket to this show, I want to acknowledge how interesting it is that John too shifts in this play, and how he moves from wanting Alma’s body to instead thinking that she ought to keep herself suitably proper. That her virginity should remain intact. That she should remain a glass figurine without flaw.
But what I loved most was how Rebecca has introduced a sense of ambiguity to the ending of this play. In the script, and in alternative productions, it’s interesting to read and hear how Alma makes a more definitive decision on her next steps. Yet, in Rebecca’s hands, Alma is not so sure-footed. Elements of her insecurity remain; those lessons and reprimands on sex and sexuality from childhood hard to fully escape.
And so, even to the end, it is clear that in Rebecca Frecknall we not only have a prodigious talent but a director who understood and felt every word of this text, and every beat of Alma’s heart. This isn’t just a truthful production, nor is it simply an excellent one. It is one where the rich talents of all its creatives have come together to take something old and transform it into something fresh, revolutionary and utterly new without once betraying the essence of and truth in Tennessee Williams’s script. This production is mesmerising, wondrous and breath-taking. My heart still aches for its beauty.