The enormous perforated canister that is Christopher Oram's set cracks open at the start of the viscerally charged revival of "Suddenly Last Summer," but that's nothing compared to the way in which, in this production, Tennessee Williams's characters crack up.

The enormous perforated canister that is Christopher Oram’s set cracks open at the start of the viscerally charged revival of “Suddenly Last Summer,” but that’s nothing compared to the way in which, in this production, Tennessee Williams’s characters crack up. Talk about opposites attract: There must be something about British reticence and Williams’ merciless ripeness that accounts for the ongoing U.K. interest in this play, following Richard Eyre’s 1992 BBC telefilm, starring Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson, and Sean Mathias’ flop West End version, with Sheila Gish and Rachel Weisz, a scant five years ago.

Michael Grandage’s fevered staging is the most dynamic account of the three, and not only because it boasts one of those designs — Ian MacNeil’s work on “An Inspector Calls” comes quickly to mind — that prompts as much discussion as the show itself. But if Oram’s set serves the evening without in any way suffocating it, that’s because it would take more than a scenic Venus flytrap (and how apt, in light of the script’s use of that very image) to dwarf the two riveting actresses who here make Williams’ play roar: Diana Rigg at her most fearsomely majestic and, especially, Victoria Hamilton at her own distinctively, fearfully sublime.

“Suddenly,” as everyone knows, is steeped in a sexuality that cannot be spoken: the proclivities of Sebastian, the late poet-aesthete son of the millionaire matriarch, Violet Venable (Rigg), who simply will not hear of the evisceration — nearly “Bacchae”-like in its intensity — of her beloved boy at the hands of the same young men whose favors he sought. And without being too crude about it, one can speak of the play as the build-up to one long confessional orgasm: the astonishing speech in which Catharine (Hamilton), Mrs. Venable’s niece by marriage, emerges from an asylum to tell the full, horrid tale of Sebastian’s fate, the words pouring out of the seemingly possessed young woman in an almost violent reverie before this “hideous story,” as Mrs. Venable describes it, has time to be “carved out of Catharine’s brain.”

Such references to lobotomy can’t help but find sorrowful real-life echoes in the grievous story of Williams’s own sister, Rose, which is just one reason why “Suddenly” has always given off the feeling of a play written in white heat. Another is that this play — in stark contrast, certainly, to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which is almost twice as long — has no preamble. From the minute the hunched-over Mrs. Venable first stalks the stage, the tension has nowhere to go but up, until the “truth,” that awful but necessary word, has been uttered. And Oram’s set just as violently slams shut, imprisoning all the characters at a terrible moment of clarity.

This play certainly invites a heavy-duty design (in the Mathias production, Tim Hatley came up with something bizarrely evocative of a Rouault painting run riot). The fetid New Orleans mansion where “Suddenly” takes place is no sanctuary of Southern graciousness but, instead, a grotesque hothouse of vengeance, deceit and sexual subterfuge, where God doesn’t exist at all, says Mrs. Venable, except to “show a savage face.” To that end, the drooping tendrils look as if they could snap to life at almost any minute, rather as if the production had taken a leaf (and quite a few stalks, as well) from Audrey II of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Nor can the impact of the set be separated from Howard Harrison’s lighting, which filters through the foliage as if desperate to illuminate the psychic darkness, and Adam Cork’s wild soundscape: a squawking environment where, you feel, agitation is the norm — and that’s before either leading lady has even begun to speak.

Mrs. Venable has clearly proven an attractive part to various monstres sacres of the stage and screen, and it was probably inevitable that Rigg would at some point turn to this terrible, self-deluded mother, having played so many others of varying degrees of intensity, from Medea and Mother Courage to the glamorous gorgon in Charlotte Jones’ “Humble Boy.” (My favorite remains her gig in the 1989 British TV miniseries that was none-too-innocently titled “Mother Love.”) But for what it’s worth, the actress never lets on that she could by now do this sort of thing by rote. A stooped, white-haired figure who lives in equal measure for her five o’clock frozen daiquiris and her tenaciously held lies, Rigg’s Violet conveys the terror of a suddenly aged woman’s emotional armor being stripped bare, with even the sky’s fiery sun foiling any chance of peace.

Hamilton showed last year in “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” that she can quicken the pulse with her unique brand of quiet. That she does so again here, in a role far more heightened than was her Tony nommed assignment, has less to do with her newly assumed, if somewhat extravagant, American accent. (The play’s most authentic-seeming sounds issue forth from Mark Bazeley in the thankless role of the would-be peacemaker, Dr. Cukrowicz, or “Sugar.”) First seen as a dimly lit apparition, Hamilton’s Catharine comes to own the stage, possessed of a conviction that grows more fervent with every impassioned sentence — until the set, with a violence ripped from this play, seals even its leading truth-teller off.

Suddenly Last Summer

Albery Theater, London; 876 seats; £40 $73 top

Production

A Duncan C. Weldon and Paul Elliott presentation for Triumph Entertainment of a Sheffield Theaters production of a play by Tennessee Williams in one act. Directed by Michael Grandage.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Howard Harrison; music and sound score, Adam Cork. Opened, reviewed May 14, 2004. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast

Mrs. Venable - Diana Rigg Catharine Holly - Victoria Hamilton Doctor Cukrowicz - Mark Bazeley Mrs. Holly - Abigail McKern Sister Felicity - Virginia Denham George Holly - Patrick Kennedy Miss Foxhill - Jennifer McEvoy
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