The Glass Menagerie

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

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

The Glass Menagerie, though set in the Depression era thirties, has a timeless quality, which invites directors to put their stamp on it. First seen at the Royal Exchange Theatre in 2022, Atri Banerjee’s slow-paced, pared-back production of Tennessee Williams's 1944 autobiographical memory play sets it on a white, tilted disc of a stage, almost bare of props but for crystal ornaments around its periphery. The second half adds glass vases of flowers and candles. Design is by Rosanna Vize.

Out of its centre rises a black pole with a large, revolving neon sign of the dance hall across the road: PARADISE. A fine touch of irony. The characters may be chasing its approximation, or at least trying to escape from the purgatory of their lives. I miss the fire escape.

“Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music.” Tom, the narrator, opens with a click of his cigarette lighter (the most valuable prop) and “yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” It‘s what I’d call a dream play.

Williams is a poet, his plays chamber ensembles, playing variations on emotional themes, which remind me of Chekhov, whom he admired greatly. Disillusioned lives, unfulfilled lives, thwarted by circumstance, unrequited in love. The four characters are a musical quartet. We must hear the subtext and understand the symbolism. Endurance is the key word. As in Chekhov.

Williams also reminds me of Maeterlinck’s symbolism, of Sartre’s Huis Clos, characters trapped in purgatory—here is that word again—though the men escape it, not the women. And of Eugene O’Neill, if only for the fact that Tom finally manages to break away from his domineering mother to sail the seas. But his guilt will always remain regarding abandoning his ‘crippled’, ‘different’ sister Laura. Emotionally and physically…

The damaged, fragile Laura, instead of “eternally” playing “those worn-out phonograph records your father left as a painful reminder of him”, is never without her Walkman player and headphones around her neck—her escapism.

Controlling mother Amanda, from the rich south, is always going on about how many gentlemen callers she had in her day. Tom and Laura must be sick of hearing it, of her maintaining standards nagging. Now on her uppers since her husband left them, she wants to find a gentleman caller for Laura. Amanda promises Tom he can leave home once Laura is set up. Tom brings Irishman Jim O’Connor along from work.

“The gentleman caller is the most realistic”—he has to be—but Banerjee can’t resist a dream sequence to Whitney Houston’s "Give Me One Moment In Time”, to which Laura fantasises a happy ever after dance with Jim. She always fancied him at school and here he is, a dream come true.

But, the promising Jim has some truths to tell her: she is beautiful, but she must have confidence, which she sorely lacks. And then he drops the bombshell: he is engaged to be married. Is this for real or is he fleeing the trap set for him? Amanda would drive anyone away with her manipulations.

Amanda, who has gone to much expense that she can little afford, is devastated. Left in her girlish best dress, you know she will soldier on behind that mask of self-delusion. You will know her from Blanche in Williams’s 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire, you will recognise Jim from that play too—the failed arranged date with Mitch.

Geraldine Somerville’s (Amanda Wingfield) antebellum Southern accent is almost a caricature—the others don't have it, which illustrates her isolation in their impoverished milieu—a fish out of water with her children, too.

Natalie Kimmerling’s Laura is quietly moving, Zacchaeus Kayode’s Jim is a breath of fresh air, but Kasper Hilton-Hille as Tom is the one who holds my attention. Look at his name, the son of two actors—he is a natural.

Lee Curran’s lighting is a player in the drama, especially when the lights go out because of Tom’s profligacy (hence the candles). Giles Thomas’s sound design underscores the mood, but the two freestanding microphones—at opposite ends of the stage—irritate. I know it’s about lack of communication, but it’s shouting and you don't need shouting in a Tennessee Williams play.

It does not move me to tears as is usual for me, and I don't buy into the corny humour (Williams is not corny), though the audience does. I always fall for the poignant tragedy, not the farce. The glass menagerie is not the ornaments that delight Laura but the fragile family itself. Jim accidentally breaks the unicorn’s horn. Now it looks like all the other horses. A moral there somewhere…

The Glass Menagerie will be touring to Bristol Old Vic 7–11 May, Theatre Royal Bath 13–18 May, and Alexandra Palace 22 May–1 June.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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