Written in 1948, Summer And Smoke by Tennessee Williams is far from one of his most performed works. Overshadowed by the likes of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, this play has been largely swept away. Personally, this was my first experience of it, and it feels like a great shame that it isn’t more widely known, as it is absolutely deserving of its place in the canon of Williams’ more applauded pieces.
Essentially, this is a play about shame. Specifically, shame induced by the experience of being stuck in a world where the expectations of others are the most important thing of all, and breaking these expectations feels like a crime above all others. Within these parameters, problems are allowed to fester and grow until they spiral out of any control. Naturally, if this is to be done any justice at all, an absolutely stellar cast is paramount. Luckily, this production is in no danger here, with the outstanding Patsy Ferran (Alma Winemiller) and Matthew Needham (John Buchanan) leading seemingly effortlessly. Ferran’s oscillating anxious presence on stage is almost painful to watch at times, as her whole body shakes and contorts with the force of the turmoil that her character is trying so hard to conceal.
The place of religion also runs through the play, with Alma terrified for her reputation as the preacher’s daughter, and her father harshly judging people he barely knows even while writing his next sermon. As the play grows, the hold that religion has slowly but surely evolves into something like an offstage plot all of its own. Once you realise it’s there, it’s hard not to see its fingerprints threaded into the very fabric of the script, making every character’s sense of identity and belonging.
Like his other aforementioned plays, Summer And Smoke seems to be built around a cast of characters to whom Williams was well acquainted: violent fathers, overwrought young women and men preoccupied with a great escape to South America populate this world, trapped together in a small town that it seems all but impossible to permanently depart from. It may sound obvious, but any play this powerful requires an equally robust creative team, and this production certainly isn’t lacking in that department. Indeed, there were lines that I missed altogether because I was completely distracted by the stage design by Tom Scutt, which in turn was complemented incredibly by Lee Curran’s lighting design. With a brick back wall strikingly reminiscent of the Almeida Theatre, where this production originated, and a half circle of seven pianos working to block in the action, the stage alone managed to invoke the gothic cathedral architecture to which Alma compares herself, as well as an all encompassing sense of entrapment. The staging here is just as important as the dialogue itself. Of course, the semi poetic script sparkles with the power of Williams’ control of language, but it would be easy to undermine this strength without the visual elements to support it.
Summer And Smoke, along with many of his other plays, draws very heavily on the pain of Williams’ own life. Watching Alma overuse sleeping tablets as anxiety medication, it would be challenging to disregard the fact that Williams himself came to heavily overuse powerful tranquillisers in order to control his own lifelong anxiety.
This is a beautiful production of a beautiful play, which seems to encapsulate the notion of something wonderful built from the ashes of terrible experiences. With an excellent cast and an ideal concept, it’s a brilliant addition to the West End.
Summer and Smoke is playing the Duke of York’s Theatre until 19 January 2019 . For more information and tickets, click here.