Ten great plays set in summer

by Marianka Swain

“Call it summer madness.” That’s the explanation Mark Gatiss’s Shpigelsky gives for his sudden and memorably farcical marriage proposal in Three Days in the Country, Patrick Marber’s new adaptation of a Russian classic at the National Theatre.

Shpigelsky is far from the only one whose desire reaches boiling point in the inescapable heat. At the centre of Turgenev’s tangled web of unrequited feelings is Natalya, who has – rather inconveniently – fallen desperately in love for the first time, not with her husband, wealthy landowner Arkady, nor steadfast admirer Rakitin, but Belyaev, the young tutor to her son.

Said tutor has also caught the eye of Natalya’s ward Vera and maidservant Katya, futilely wooed by a much older neighbour and fellow servant respectively. “I wish I could explain,” sighs Natalya, but this is love as an unreasonable and pitiless force.

Amanda Drew as Natalya and Royce Pierreson as Belyaev. Photo by Mark Douet.

So far so Chekhovian, you might think, but Turgenev’s 1848 country-house tragicomedy actually preceded his fellow countryman’s by half a century. Nor are they alone in skilfully exploiting the dramatic possibilities of a sweltering summer setting: playwrights as diverse as Shakespeare, Noël Coward, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are among that company.

Their summers are often characterised by disruption, operating outside the normal rules of engagement, whether abandoning the court for an enchanted wood, gathering a disparate group for a holiday, or trapping an estranged, combatant family in close quarters.

As the temperature rises, social conventions and class restraints melt away in the face of unbridled, ungovernable passion. “For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring,” warns Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, and that loss of self-control can result in dreamlike liberation or fatal tragedy.

In either case, the glare of the sun mercilessly magnifies everything from lust to loathing. It’s an invaluable tool in communicating the intensity of feeling to an audience.

This season can carry, too, great allegorical importance. Whether the last gasp of a dying world or innocence about to be lost, the end of summer signals monumental change.

Here are 10 great plays set in summer. If we’ve missed your favourite, do share it in the comments below. 

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare, c. 1595

Susan Fleetwood as Titania and Derek Newark as Bottom in the National Theatre’s 1982 production, directed by Bill Bryden. Photo by Michael Mayhew.

Referencing Midsummer’s Eve and May Day – both associated with subversive magic and mayhem – the Bard’s giddy comedy escapes Athens’ patriarchal rule for the chaotic, carnivalesque fairy world.

The focus on courtship echoes the festivals’ celebration of fertility: of the crop and human variety. In contrast to Theseus and Hippolyta’s strategic union, the young lovers give full vent to their ardour, while the transformed Bottom engages in a transgressive act that he later attributes to a dream. But like the May festivals, this heady summer enchantment cannot last forever – at the end, order must be restored.

2. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, 1947

A hot, sticky, cramped apartment in the New Orleans French Quarter is the punishing location for this battle royale, where Williams pits smouldering, blue-collar Stanley against sister-in-law Blanche, the faded Southern belle clinging to the illusion of refinement.

In this cauldron, mutual antagonism and animalistic attraction rise from slow simmer to volcanic eruption – with the aid of alcohol: “Liquor goes fast in hot weather.” Melodrama is avoided by enveloping the raw, ravenous emotion in hazy lyricism, producing a piece of almost mystical poetry and pathos.

3. The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov, 1904

Vanessa Redgrave as Ranevskaya in the National Theatre’s 1999 production, directed by Trevor Nunn. Photo by John Haynes.

Chekhov’s elegiac masterpiece begins in May, when there’s still time for aristocrat Ranevskaya to save her ancestral estate, and ends in October, when all hope is gone.

The noble family’s sleepwalking to disaster over a languid summer mirrors a ruling class refusing to adapt to the new Russia, stripped of its feudal system by Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs. Chekhov is critical of this delusional behaviour, yet also sympathetic to the carnage of change: the play is suffused with grief, framed by personal loss and the demise of the cherry trees, symbolic of sadness at the passing of an era.

4. The American Plan, Richard Greenberg, 1990

Move over, Poldark. Greenberg’s play opens with virile Nick emerging from a lake, the preppy prince come to save high-strung Lili from her draconian mother. Except the fairy-tale summer romance is not what it seems: this world is populated by consummate fantasists.

The title refers to an all-you-can-eat Catskills resort option, in stark contrast to recent wartime deprivation, but its lavishness comes at a price – “an intricately unhappy life lived out in compensatory splendour”. The livin’ is easy, the loving anything but: the sixties revolution comes too late for these outsiders, stifled by collective values.

5. Humble Boy, Charlotte Jones, 2001

Simon Russell Beale as Felix Humble in the premiere production at the National Theatre, directed by John Caird. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

Jones conjures the pastoral idyll of an English country garden in midsummer, featuring Pimm’s, cricket whites, rose bushes and hosepipe bans, and vividly juxtaposes it with familial strife, culminating in a riotous battle involving garden implements.

Hamlet-esque Felix Humble (Simon Russell Beale in the original National Theatre production), a socially awkward theoretical astrophysicist, returns home following his father’s sudden death. Wearing a too-small suit, sitting on a too-low stool and hampered by his prepubescent stutter, he’s plunged back into childhood, even as he mourns its loss: “It’s the summer solstice. The longest day. It’s all downhill from now on.”

6. All My Sons, Arthur Miller, 1947

James Hazeldine as Joe Keller and Catherine McCormack as Ann Deever in the National Theatre’s 2000 production, directed by Howard Davies. Photo by Ivan Kyncl.

Miller’s dissection of the American Dream begins in picture-perfect upper-middle-class contentment: self-made businessman Joe Keller reading the Sunday paper in his comfortable suburban backyard on a sunny August morning. Just 24 hours later, this post-war paradise has been annihilated.

The tragedy is tortuously slow burn, with Joe’s past decision to prioritise family and profit over morality and wider social responsibility leading to his inexorable downfall. The destructive power of brutal truth, constantly present in the guise of the felled apple tree, is inexorable, and the feverish weather accentuates the play’s oppression.

7. Hay Fever, Noël Coward, 1924

Maggie Smith in the National Theatre’s 1964 production, directed by Noël Coward. Photo by Angus McBean.

Coward struck comic gold with his depiction of the country-house party from hell. Rather than an idyllic June weekend retreat, guests of the bohemian, wilfully eccentric Bliss clan become unwitting cast members in their domestic dramatics. It’s a high-spirited, hijinks version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The visitors, lured by the promise of escape from convention, soon feel the loss of dependable social niceties, and an accidental quadruple-booking prevents romantic intrigue from materialising. Vagaries of British summertime leave them at the mercy of the family’s fraught, deliciously self-absorbed game-playing when torrential rain traps them inside.

8. Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose, 1954

First appearing as a TV drama, Rose’s celebrated play confines the action to a single space. His deliberating jurors are imprisoned in the shabby, claustrophobic backroom of a New York court with a broken fan on “the hottest day of the year”, literally sweating their crucial decision.

The steaming heat contributes to some of the jurors’ wish for a speedy guilty verdict, but, once the 8th Juror has begun to sow the seeds of reasonable doubt, also inflames the impassioned conflict between dissenters, as personal prejudice bursts forth.

9. Ah, Wilderness!, Eugene O’Neill, 1933

It’s that rarest of creations: a tender O’Neill coming-of-age comedy. Set in 1906, this semi-autobiographical folk play is the sunny counterpart to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which shares its coastal Connecticut setting. Here, drunkenness and conflict merely disrupt rather than destroy familial harmony.

Rejecting Fourth of July celebrations, teen rebel Richard flirts with a different kind of independence after gorging on anti-establishment literature, but, in an idealised version of O’Neill’s experience, his parents are sympathetic to this search for identity. “It has the sweet charm of a dream of lost youth,” declared the playwright of this paean to volatile but protected adolescence.

10. August: Osage County, Tracy Letts, 2007

The sun-scorched Oklahoma homestead, so blistering that even the tropical pet parakeets have dropped off their perch, is a key ingredient in the spectacular meltdown of Letts’s dysfunctional family.

The fractious clan, reunited following the demise of alcoholic patriarch Beverly, is subjected to the mental and physical tortures of his pill-popping wife Violet (Meryl Streep in the film version): not only is she a lacerating manipulator, but she doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Enclosure in this fetid, suffocating dwelling raises the action to operatic levels as scandalous secrets are exposed and long-held resentments explode into violence.

Three Days in the Country is playing now. Find out more and book tickets.

What plays would you include in this list? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Marianka on @mkmswain

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