It’s a drizzly Wednesday morning, and I’m sipping on an Americano in the foyer of the Oxford Playhouse. I’m meeting with Sammy Glover, member of the Experimental Theatre Club and director of Suddenly Last Summer, which runs here next week. Glover is immediately disarming, breezing into the room during a break in rehearsals – “what’s this for? Oh! Hello OxStu!” – greeting me with a hug, gossiping about people we know, and peppering her sentences with as many ‘dude’s and ‘man’s as she does expletives.
We start by discussing the play: “The show is one of Tennessee Williams’ more rarely-staged works. It’s a story about a murder, and a girl who thinks she knows what happened. Everyone else thinks she’s crazy, so she’s been locked up in an asylum, and is considered mentally ill and vicious. The question is whether she really is, and whether she saw it happen or not. It’s one act, it’s short, it’s dark, it’s enigmatic, it’s poetic, it’s weird. Anyone with any sort of sense would never even think about putting it on, let alone putting it on a stage which is built for yesterday’s plays.”
It’s one act, it’s short, it’s dark, it’s enigmatic, it’s poetic, it’s weird.
Has directing a show for a traditional proscenium arch theatre been difficult, then, given the ETC’s history of site-specific, immersive, and black-box productions? Glover thinks so: “Before we bid for the Playhouse, all my gut instincts were not to do this. This sort of archaic, antediluvian feel is ingrained in its cement. I thought we should be doing things in cars and dustbins, rather than the Playhouse. But then also it’s a really exciting challenge – how do we kick against that? And does kicking against that enhance our experience, or detract from it? When people come to the Playhouse, they come with a pre-conception of what they’re going to see, and they sit back in their chairs and expect to watch and not engage. When you’re in a box theatre you never know what’s going to happen, so it’s about seeing whether we can convert that feeling of being just one person watching something, to being six hundred.”
Suddenly’s setting, Glover explains, will be abstract, rather than period: “Tennessee Williams should be treated like any other writer, and if you’re being staged now, it should be because you’re relevant and important. What he’s saying about human communication, about truth, about artifice, and pain and death and torture, are things that we can all connect with, but only if we strip his work of its period archaic accents. Truth on a stage doesn’t have to be realistic – if there’s a conversation that’s supposed to be happening across a table, we know that’s where it’s supposed to be happening! You don’t need to actually put it across a table. I’m not interested in the bits between the extremes – I’m interested in the truth of the connection and the interaction.”
Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that the prestige of the Playhouse, and the practicalities of staging a show there, are not on Glover’s radar. The critical and commercial success of a Playhouse show, however, is always the sum of its parts, both practical and creative, and the habitual risk-taking of the ETC may not be welcome with the theatre’s usual clientele. Does this worry Glover? “Artists should be artists, bankers should be bankers, but in theatre there seems to be this impression that you should do both…that’s a question for the producer. I can’t answer that.” The creative, then, is her sole focus, and from her clear enthusiasm about the cast and the story, and the ETC’s successful track record, we should expect big things. With their infectious enthusiasm for new ways of storytelling, we should look forward to seeing what a company with such focused creative energy bring to the Playhouse stage.
Suddenly Last Summer is on in the Playhouse from the 8th to the 11th of February.