The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams
Rose Theatre, Alexandra Palace Theatre and Belgrade Theatre in association with Royal Exchange Theatre
Alexandra Palace, London

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Kasper Hilton-Hille as Tom Wingfield, Natalie Kimmerling as Laura Wingfield, Geraldine Somerville as Amanda Wingfield and Zacchaeus Kayode as Jim O’Connor Credit: Marc Brenner
The Glass Menagerie Credit: Marc Brenner
The Glass Menagerie Credit: Marc Brenner

This ambitiously deviant production of A Glass Menagerie sticks mostly to the text, conjuring up a slightly different understanding of its characters while distracting its audience with numerous wild directorial decisions.

The play is introduced as a memory by Tom Wingfield of a time in 1937 when he lived with his mother Amanda and sister Laura while working in a shoe warehouse. Restless, he spends much of his time at the cinema and getting drunk.

There can be a lyrical power to what is spoken underlining the emotional frustrations of the characters as Tom argues with his mother whose memories of her gentleman callers pepper their conversations and lead to her persuading him to bring home for a meal his workmate, Jim (Zacchaeus Kayode), as a possible romantic interest for shy Laura.

The director replaces the claustrophobia of a small apartment with a huge, black, slanting, circular object resting on the stage of the grand Alexandra Palace Theatre forming part of the performance area. At its centre, a sturdy, black possibly twelve-foot-high post carries the large, revolving neon letters “paradise”, which we later learn is the name of a club across the road. If you look hard, you can spot, on the periphery of the black circle, tiny objects that are Laura’s glass animal collection.

There is a light touch to the performance. Kasper Hilton-Hille as Tom delivers the sad, reflective opening with a touch of smiling humour. Occasionally, to suggest his restlessness, he wildly runs in circles around the stage.

The performative sociability of Amanda with her romantic stories of having spent her youth among Southern gentility that irritate Tom is replaced in Geraldine Somerville’s performance by a gentle, relaxed manner. Natalie Kimmerling as Laura reduces the character's fragile vulnerability to a generally assertive appearance tinged with shyness.

To emphasise the characters' remoteness from each other, the director has them speak to each other from great distances across the stage without looking at each other. Occasionally, two characters having a conversation will stand on either side of the stage as they face the audience speaking from stand-up microphones.

Among the other ways the show detaches itself from any time or place is to drop into anachronistic confusion. Tom may have told us that events of the play take place in 1937, but the clothes they wear along with Laura’s headphones and Walkman playing Whitney Houston suggest the 1980s.

Given all these directorial digressions from the meaning of the play erase its emotional impact making the whole thing feel lifeless, Atri Banerjee gives us all a weird, exciting break with a Jim and Laura dancing sequence in which they roll on top of each other and Laura pulls Jim between her legs.

Before you phone the Tennessee Williams estate for help, it is followed by a repeat of the scene with the more conventional, tentative dance sequence, implying that what we had just experienced was little more than an imagined yearning of someone. Since we have been given no indications that it could be any of the characters in the play, it must have been the director getting bored by his production.

A while back, the Arts Council warned theatre companies that they may lose funding if they were too political. A friend laughed saying, “well that’s Ibsen out of the window”. Perhaps another theatre company I visited took it seriously when they instantly closed a short play about Palestine and spent 45 minutes trying to persuade me to erase the existence of my published positive review.

The truth is, theatre doesn’t need Big Brother to clamp down on the political meaning of shows when directors like Atri Banerjee are willing to drain great drama of any clear meaning or emotional power whatsoever.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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