Directed by Rebecca Frecknall, Tennessee Williams’ 1948 play Summer and Smoke arrives at the Almeida Theatre in the week that the meteorological season of spring has taken the United Kingdom by storm. Featuring an ensemble cast, the classic centres around the spiritual and sexual relationship between Alma Winemiller and John Buchanan Jr. – she, a preacher’s daughter and he, the son of a doctor.
Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma and John have grown up as next-door neighbours. Prone to anxiety and intoxicated by the heat of the summer, Alma is trapped in a world ruled by intangible desires and a fear of the carnal hunger inspired by her childhood companion. An oppressiveness of duty looms in the face of unfortunate familiar circumstances, and it is John’s unbridled personality that sanitises the disabling feelings of loneliness that she so often experiences. However, the near romance comes at a price – a lengthy self-destruction that is challenged, but not before it is too late.
Nine pianos gather in a semi-circle, complete with wooden stools and orbited by an arc of hanging lamps. Designed by Tom Scutt, a pair of stairs lead to a cavity in the centre of the stage, with dirt sleeping in every corner. A high brick wall threatens the safety of the space, creating a dark, dank sense of claustrophobia – an imposing kind of chill that complicates the fever of this sticky Southern summer. Musical notes crash to the floor like beads of sweat before becoming ghost-like, slipping underneath scenes and singing bridges between one place and the next. Alma (played by Patsy Ferran), suffers a seizure of sudden emotion, her pristine shirt and modest skirt shivering with the attack of breathlessness. Her hair is knotted in a neat bun at the nape of her neck, a handkerchief balled tightly in her anxious fist – the antithesis of John (Matthew Needham), who’s rounded shoulders and slack denim trousers ooze a relaxed confidence.
Ferran’s arpeggio of nervous laughter narrates an outstanding performance. Her features brim with expression, lighting up the spaces between the words that Alma chooses so carefully. Her increasing agitation is met with staccato phrases of intimacy and anger, the collision of body and soul almost audible throughout the unsuccessful chemical reaction between herself and John. Needham’s journey is equally fascinating, his agonising reactions enough to strike terror into the heart of this epoch of unrequited love. He draws breath from her like blood, the poetry of lingering physical contact measured by the ticking of a metronome, this allusion of fast-escaping youth adding to the intensity of the torment experienced by both principle characters.
Summer and Smoke is a commendable celebration of Williams’ lyrical writing style. Its conclusion rides defiantly on the back of the Gulf Wind, meeting the elements in a place beyond the reach of language. In the natural world, the astronomical spring may not be due for some time, but this production is an equinox entirely of its own.
Summer and Smoke is playing at the Almeida Theatre until April 7 2018
Photo: Marc Brenner