Dicebox are back, and they’re bringing Tennessee Williams to the Exeter Phoenix. Following her directorial debut with the company, in their first production, Plucked , a dark comedy based on Williams’ and Sarah Kane, Anastasia Bunce, along with Assistant Director James Joseph have taken on Summer and Smoke.
Bunce’s directorial style is one of the most memorable elements of this retelling. It is staged in the round, a simultaneously immersive and separative experience for the audience. A cast member may hide beside you, or make eye contact, transporting you into Williams’ narrative, but you may also glance across the stage to see another audience member, breaking the illusion.
directed quick movement and speech between actors keeps the frenetic pace
That being said, Bunce makes it work. The directed quick movement and speech between actors keeps the frenetic pace, contrasting the lazy heat of the Southern States setting. This is most exemplified in one scene, a sort-of book club, where the actors all speak over one another, arguing. Yet if you tune into one frequency, their words are clearly distinguishable. This fast pace also exists in the changing of both costume and character. The cast members cast in more than one role switch characters with little to no issue, easily separated from their previous parts.
Continuing to praise the production team, it would be a failure on my part if I didn’t recognise the excellent original graphic design by Mohammed Patel, Molly Thatcher’s simple yet beautiful costumes, and Oliver Rose’s original and transportative score. Their dedication and passion amplifies the talent of actors and director, aiding in their telling of Williams’ original story.
excellent original graphic design by Mohammed Pate
Whilst the dedication and passion of the cast is also undeniable, there is no doubt that Cat Blanchfield shines through as the protagonist, Alma Winemiller. She throws herself into the role with as much energy and dramatism as is required of Williams’ scripts, and her chemistry with leading man Harry Douglas-Jones’ John Buchanan has the audience as invested in their almost-love-affair as the characters themselves.
Cat particularly stands out in a scene where she disciplines John for his hedonistic behaviour, arguing that as he is gifted in the medical arts, he should dedicate himself as fully as possible. What she makes sure the audience hears through those words is “I am a woman. I do not have the tools to help people in the way you do. I desire your gift, but I can’t have it, and encouraging you is the most I can do.”
Cat Blanchfield shines through as the protagonist
Female pain is a constant subject of Williams’ literary exploration. He often does this in a way that promotes female strength is found through suffering, almost fetishizing it. Racism is also strongly present in his works- of course it is the two Mexican characters who are labelled by Alma and the narrative as morally repugnant. It should be noted that the Bunce removed some of the more explicit racial slurs and insults. Beyond that, the cast and crew have little to nothing to do with the writing of the script itself, it is rather my personal distaste for Williams’ works that I felt necessary to mention.
There is an occasional dropping of accents, and the character of Gonzales, was difficult to hear from my position in the audience- but for a student production, a lack of perfection is a minor qualm. They make Williams engaging, the words are staged, directed and delivered with passion, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is a labour of love from both cast and crew. I, for one, will be watching with anticipation to see what they do next.