The Glass Menagerie
Manchester Royal Exchange production
Bath Theatre Royal and touring
Someone, I forget who, remarked that you can learn more about a piece of drama from a bad production than a good one. I'm yet to be convinced of the genius of Tennessee Williams but Rupert Goold's production of The Glass Menagerie in the West End came as close as anything has to persuading me.
Braham Murray's new staging, which won critical acclaim when it opened, earlier this year, in Manchester, and is now on a mini tour of the regions before it also opens in London's West End, however, has revived my doubts.
Not that Murray's production is 'bad', I should add. It certainly boasts a strong performance by Brenda Blethyn as Amanda Wingfield. But it does seem to highlight elements of Williams' writing which have troubled me on other occasions, elements which largely passed me by in Goold's superb staging.
First up is Williams' use of the son, Tom, as both an active participant in the proceedings and as an omniscient narrator, something Arthur Miller, does in A View From the Bridge - to similar effect. It is a matter of taste of course, but having a character slipping in and out of proceedings felt, well, clunky, really.
This is in part due to the inexperience of Mark Arends as Tom, who raises Williams' already febrile writing to fever pitch, right from the off, leaving his character nowhere to go. And as intelligent as Blethyn's performance is, it is bereft of the fragility Lange found which enabled one to empathise with her.
Lange, you felt, had indeed had her time in the sun and share of gentlemen callers. With Blethyn, and this is no slight to the actress, this claim seems mere fantasy and therefore less excusable. And her voice, while apparently the most consistently sounding southern of the four, would drive a bishop to kick a stained glass window in, to borrow a phrase from Raymond Chandler.
I used the word 'fragility' about Amanda, but it's a quality which holds true of Williams' work as a whole. His writing is alternately poetic, melodramatic, comic and tragic. Cooked in the right way and at the right temperature it rises well enough. Get it wrong, however, and this soufflé can fall very flat indeed.
Ultimately I don't think Murray's production succeeds because it does not negotiate successfully enough the shifts in register in the writing. Blethyn, as described, delivers a powerful performance although one which fails to win us, the audience, to her side. And there is good work too from Emma Hamilton as Laura, the punishingly shy daughter, and Andrew Langtree as Jim O'Connor.
In the end, though, the withers remain unwrung and the "rainbows" Tom speaks of fail to materialise for long but the production, nonetheless, remains worth catching, particularly to those who have yet to see this puzzle of a play.
David Chadderton reviewed this production at the Manchester Royal Exchange
Reviewer: Pete Wood