This time last year, the Almeida was in the middle of a purple patch, one that would produce a successive run of West End transfers with Mary Stuart, Hamlet and Ink all quickly secured hugely successful extensions. Now, their new production of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams once again reminds larger theatres of the power of this small Islington venue; it’s ability not just to attract emerging talent among a pool of actors, writers and directors, but also to reimagine classic plays as fresh and invigorating stories for modern audiences.
Unlike last year’s Young Vic production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Benedict Andrews, which proved to be a “cold seduction” where nudity became a rather insubstantial substitute for chemistry, the Almeida’s interpretation of Summer and Smoke creates an astonishing balance of emotional fragility and electrifying sensual charge. Williams’s work is largely associated with these ideas of repressed or frustrated sexuality that struggles to break free during the course of the play, but he also writes sensitively about the tender pain of impossible love and the often stark self-realisations that follow.
Summer and Smoke is the rather wistful story of young lovers separated by their physical and spiritual concept of relationships. Neighbours since childhood, the anxious Alma becomes drawn to newly qualified doctor John, and in doing so goes against the rules of life, conduct and decency that she aims to live by. Demanding a connection of souls, the young medic’s concentration on the body repels and attracts her in equal measure, never able to fully commit herself. But, as his louche lifestyle takes him into the arms of another woman, the pair find their views begin to change and a decisive moment offers one last chance to breach the divide.
One of the key things you notice in this mesmerising production, skilfully directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is how like D.H. Lawrence it is, and how Williams uses Lawrencian themes to quietly devastating effect on both his characters and his audience. One of the key characteristics of Lawrence’s major novels is the tacit push and pull between two potential lovers, as their ability to form a loving relationship rests not in the external activities and plot devices that surround them, but in the silent and inexplicable moments of ease and discord that spring up wordlessly between them.
In Sons and Lovers, Miriam finds herself at odds with protagonist Paul where a feeling of distance and disagreement seems to exist when they are alone even though they appear destined, or at least they expect, to be together. And it is this inability to reconcile the peace between their souls that sets them on an entirely different course than the one they imagined. This is exactly the tone that Frecknall creates in Summer and Smoke, of two lonely souls craving each other but unable to find a rhythm despite the fervent desire of their bodies and minds.
And loneliness tears through Frecknall’s charged interpretation, manifesting itself in many different ways, as two quite opposite personalities seek solace outside the self. Like Lawrence, Williams is writing about young people at a precipice, where the next choice will define the rest of their life and making the wrong one (or having it made for them) will forever extinguish some kind of flame within them. Desperation reeks through the Almeida’s show, as the moving story of Alma and John becomes a fight for life in which they must find a perfect union or are lost forever not only to each other, but also to themselves.
Cannily staged by Tom Scutt with a circle of pianos played by a small supporting cast in multiple roles, Mark Dickman uses music to infuse the production, perfectly underscoring whole scenes and individual moments with an emotionally-driven score and, even more crucially, wells of silence that engulf the principals’ and audience hearts. Lee Curran’s lighting supports the creation of mood and location which, in a minimal setting, brings out the sunlit heat of the Mississippi town by day and the sultry shadows of night, perfectly reflecting the physical and emotional state of the leads. Scutt and Curran underscore, Williams’s fragmented story as Alma and John’s experience drifts like smoke into view before floating away, fragile and light.
But Frecknall weaves this into a hugely impactful experience, building the tension between the characters in Act One, loading their interactions with greater passion and investment, before allowing Act Two to dissolve around them, emphasising the growing distance and impossibility of their relationship. Deftly directed, Frecknall allows Williams’s story to fill your heart only to break it.
Still early in her career, Patsy Ferran has gathered quite the portfolio of impressive performances in what is still a relatively short CV. With notable roles in Speech and Debate as well as My Mum’s a Tw*t in the last year alone, Ferran is fast becoming one of the most interesting actors on the London stage. She has a particularly gift for presenting the perspective of the outsider, showing the human fears and pain that sit beneath the surface, so she’s perfectly cast as the gentle but nervy singing teacher Alma whose struggles eventually consume body and soul.
Told predominantly from the perspective of restrained Minister’s daughter Alma, Ferran’s performance is full of beautifully judged small gestures which build to form a picture of a young woman emerging from emotional seclusion into a world of feeling. The tragedy lies in the timing. Having chastely loved the boy next door for years, Ferran shows how physical sensation starts to blossom in Alma as she shares a succession of increasingly intimate moments with John. You feel the rippling effect as he lightly takes her pulse for the first time, the virtually scandalous intrusion of a stethoscope to listen to her heart and Ferran makes each act a tug of war between shame and desire, fearing the unexpected flutter of yearning John’s proximity creates while desperately craving it.
As the story unfolds, Alma blooms and her initial awkwardness around him where she’s all heavy limbs and nervous laughter, evolves into a visible determination to be near him, to overcome her reticence and lean into him. In lesser hands, Alma could be frustrating, gawkish and even irritating but it’s so gently done that Ferran holds you in thrall with a performance that subtly merges hope with an inevitable sadness.
John is no less interesting, and while his story is not the central focus of Williams’s play, Matthew Needham builds an equally tragic story of jaded disappointment. John, like Alma, is trapped in a predetermined role, forced into becoming a doctor by his difficult father Dr Buchanan. So, John rebels and Needham brings a sad desperation to his attempts to find solace in the seedy local entertainments. He may womanise, drink and gamble but it’s clear that none of it makes him happy, so every aspect of his life, even the defiant acts against respectability, seem to chip away at his sense of self, drawing him unstoppably towards an unremarkable future.
His physicality is palpable throughout the story and Needham shows John visibly waking-up when he’s with Alma, responding to her presence and feeling drawn to some essential purity in her. As that becomes increasingly complex, Needham charts John’s retreat extremely effectively, so as the tables turn between them and he gives up the fight, watching him succumb to the life he never wanted is very moving. Ferran and Needham have an incredible chemistry, these are two characters that don’t just love but actually infect each other with devastating effect on who they become.
The surrounding cast create a whole town’s worth of people and with some clever doubling of roles get to play opposing interpretations of similar characters. Forbes Masson is both Alma and John’s fathers, the kindly Reverend Winemiller who fears for his daughter’s moral safety and the dastardly Dr Buchanan whose strict rules and uncompromising character drive his son to rebellion. Anjana Vasan plays both the sexy Mexican girl Rosa who John becomes involved with at the same time as Alma, while also performing as the innocent Nellie who makes a play for him in the Second Act – having both roles played by the same actor indicating something about John’s view on the generic face of women who are not Alma.
Much of the play’s humour is centred in the more liberated character of Mrs Winemiller, Alma’s mother who had a breakdown before the start of the story. Nancy Crane brings a sense of uncaring freedom to the role, defying social convention to make jokes at her daughter’s expense, behave childishly and not care. It’s a fascinating contrast not just with the buttoned-up Alma, but also with the more conventionally rebellious John, who doesn’t find a tenth of the happiness that the genuinely free Mrs Winemiller obtains.
Summer and Smoke is a glorious adaptation of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser known works, and like Peter Gill’s The York Realist entering its final weeks at the Donmar Warehouse, the business of the play is handled with such subtly that it allows the deep emotional connection at the heart of the story to flourish. With a magnetic central pairing, Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke is unmissably beautiful, and the Almeida at its finest.
Summer and Smoke is at the Almeida Theatre until 7 April. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1