The Glass Menagerie
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Headlong and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse
Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse
The Glass Menagerie is regarded as a classic of American theatre in which Tennessee Williams portrays the Wingfields, a crumbling, dysfunctional family.
Amanda (Greta Scacchi) lives half in the past: a Southern Belle with frequent and welcome "gentlemen callers" and a life full of promise. In the present time, she shares a small flat with her children, Laura (Erin Doherty), a shy young woman, and Tom (Tom Mothersdale), a merchant seaman, the narrator, whose memories of how it was form the body of the play.
The set bears some resemblance to that suggested by Williams in his production notes. We first find Tom "in the alleyway", stage front, dwarfed by a concrete block wall, he explains "the tricks" he will play in order to tell his story and those of mother, sister, and Jim, the gentleman caller (Eric Kofi Abrefa).
The wall ascends to reveal a black box with stairs upstage, a couple of standard lamps and Amanda and Laura posed as if waxworks. Then Amanda speaks, calling for Tom to enter the past and say grace. And we’re off.
We hear that Amanda’s only hope of regaining her actual (or imagined) past glory is that Laura might score highly with a gentleman caller. And we see that this is unlikely, for Laura is grotesquely shy and lives in her own fantasy world of tiny glass animals. She is lame, inhibited, powerless. And Amanda, whilst seeing her as an escape route, also needs to keep her dependent.
Meanwhile, Tom has one ambition: to escape, to run away to sea as his father did before him. In the meantime, he has boring work, writes poetry in the boys' room and lives for the movies.
His first lines give an indication of the quality of this script, the potential excitement Williams offers: "Yes, I have tricks in my pockets, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you the illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."
Now that, to me, is a brilliant opening. Lines that have me, metaphorically at least, sitting forward just to see what’s going to happen.
Sadly, this production manages to get in the way of the writing. Williams refers to atmospheric touches and subtleties of direction playing "a particular important part... that is a closer approach to truth. Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth."
This production offers us theatrical frippery, rarely entertaining, revealing no truths, failing to reveal character or move the narrative. What’s worse, on press night, some of the stunts failed to work. A match representing a chandelier blew out, a spinning lampshade broke, the tiny glitterball that represented the whole shooting match was too small to see.
And did I mention that the set apparently floated in water? Is this just the gutter or a symbolic nod to the flooding of New Orleans? What does it add to the play, which anyway is set in Saint Louis?
And what of characterisation? Williams surely knew how to create (or report upon) fascinating characters. Take Amanda. Williams: "There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at. Certainly she has endurance and a kind of heroism, and though her foolishness makes her unwittingly cruel at times, there is tenderness in her slight person."
And there is more. But director Ellen McDougall has allowed or encouraged Greta Scacchi to make Amanda into a rather stereotyped ditzy manic depressive. And, as the play goes on, the part is increasingly played for laughs.
Laura is Dickensian, hugging the wall in panic when Jim the gentleman caller turns up. The final lines from Tom, revealing that he can never escape the pain of those days, are great tear jerking lines, beautifully written. They should have us close to tears if not in ‘em, but here Tom does the crying for us. Emotion is taken care of on stage.
Throughout, I gained the impression that these excellent actors were dramatically under-employed, that Williams's signature Southern humidity had slurped into British damp. In the programme, Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin says of this production: "it’s about taking a really great play that no-one has done for a while, and giving that to an exciting new voice who can say something new with it." I am not sure whether or not this production says something new, but it certainly says less.
On second thoughts, perhaps the something new is the introduction of a terminal rainstorm with real water. But some years ago we had a whole season of this at West Yorkshire Playhouse, as if our weather wasn't enough.
Reviewer: Ray Brown