Resident Director Dervla Toal explores rehearsals so far for Summer and Smoke.
Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind doth move
I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart,
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears.
Ah! she did depart!
Soon after she was gone from me,
A traveller came by,
He took her with a sigh.
- William Blake
It’s January and we’re three weeks into rehearsals for Summer and Smoke with action accelerating as we begin to run scenes together into acts. Rebecca Frecknall has assembled a wonderful group of collaborators, and amidst the rain and cold of a damp London sky we are ensconced in the rehearsal rooms at the Almeida and beginning to create another world. In this sacred space we begin to immerse ourselves in the themes of the play, pertaining to love, sexual passion and suppression, loneliness, mental illness, religion versus science, mind versus body and the human longing for connection.
One thread which is omnipotently central is the Angel figure which represents that “other” world of eternity, spirituality, God, that place of magic. A scorching breathless summer in Mississippi is where we begin, and we move steadily toward autumn and winter, symbolic of the ever-present enemy, time, the brevity of life, ripe young breathless yearning to the more austere pragmatic acceptance of winter, of age, of ash.
Our composer Angus MacRae has written some beautiful haunting music that underscores the movement of time and place, of heat and breeze, anarchy and order, of summer and smoke. It is such a vital component of the play always eluding to the subconscious, to that still beating heart, to that tick tock, tick tock of eternal time passing.
The design is exquisite and fully complements the words and music, the story further elevating this beautiful piece of theatre which has been conceived and allows for a fluidity of movement and dynamism of staging as we play with space – of the inner space, the edge of space, and out of space.
Each day we learn something new about the alchemy of theatre, the synthesis of connection, the marrying of conscious and unconscious intention. As the story unfolds and the themes of love, life and death in all their familiar and unfamiliar guises come to life, we soften, we attune, we synthesise; by analysing, playing with text and moving the boundaries between the characters, excavating the subtext and looking for tone and texture. What events triggered these present circumstances? As rehearsals progress, we unlock the characters interior lives, the games they play and polarities inherent in each of them. What happens when we let go of the mask, the façade? In whose hands is loneliness ever safe?
The philosophers - cast - work their magic and weave those themes together like well accomplished magicians who are transported to and linked to 50,000 years of history, linked from Sophocles to Beckett, from Shakespeare to Stoppard and the perennial themes which make us think, make us question our very existence, make us want to understand. Themes that make us human are always in fashion.
“What is your definition of happiness, Mr Williams?”
“Insensitivity, I guess.”
Each character in the play is hungry for something with huge appetites and elaborate systems to ameliorate loneliness, to fill the void - through cigarettes and ice cream, alcohol, promiscuity, drugs... or God. All to numb the pain of existence. To nullify. Echoes of Tennessee Williams life haunt and envelope each character in the play. The journey of our protagonist, Alma, seems particularly prescient today; at a time of atomisation, incarceration of the soul here takes on an almost allegorical significance. It’s fascinating to explore the play with the momentum of our current political climate; where transmutation is questioned, and patriarchy is no longer a veiled concept: ‘times up’. Casual cruelty and unprovoked malice mark the backdrop of our setting, the older patriarchal church-going elite, representative of a stagnant society – here Tennessee Williams challenges the ideals of happy ever after: in demystifying the romanticism can we unlock ourselves from these mind forged manacles?
Tennessee Williams was said to have two devotions in his life – his writing and his sister, Rose Williams. Rose loved pretty clothes and looking beautiful but suffered with depression and was eventually diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and lobotomised. There are echoes of Rose throughout Summer and Smoke; from nervous laughter to coveting beautiful items. One of Rose Williams few remaining quotes is to her brother:
“You must never make fun of insanity. It’s worse than death”.