Play: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Venue: Duke of York Theatre, London
‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been…evolved.’
— Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species
Springing from a simple set, floating on water and empty space, John Tiffany’s version of The Glass Menagerie manages to bewitch. Through simple forms it elegantly spotlights the beauty and tragedy of Williams’ soul-searching words. We are greeted with simple props – a grilled set of fire-escape stairs receding up to infinity, a faded gold gramophone, a matching sofa and separator, and not a lot else for the bared-down cast to revolve around. The lighting is warmed by memory for the most part, occasionally broken by reality’s harsh moonlight.
This harder blue serves to isolate the narrator, Tom (Michael Esper), who is understood to represent Williams himself in this, his most autobiographical of plays. Tom is the only character who even sparingly adheres to the world as-it-is. He is granted 4th-wall-breaking soliloquys, where he acknowledges the untruth of his (Williams’) retelling. Tom and his family mostly inhabit closeted worlds of their own making. As his mother hysterically decries – ‘you live in a dream’. She may as well be talking of herself.
Dream-worlds here take many forms. Tom and his sister use ‘the movies’ as cesspools of escape, despite their mother’s flagrant disapproval. For her part, Amanda (the mother, Cherry Jones) constructs a reality where her crippled daughter Laura (Kate O’Flynn) might find a budding husband. Amanda’s escapism is hard-fought, forged in the harsh context of single parenthood in the Great Depression. Laura’s fantasy pivots around her glass menagerie of animal figurines, nurtured in a glowing box to which she frequently retreats her gaze. It is a small, simple world that she can control.
Tiffany presents a tableau of deception, drawn along both family fault-lines and inner divisions, where characters lie to themselves just enough to get by. The outside world, fittingly, is jet black – a non-entity, walled off by denial and Tom’s incomplete memories. Tiffany has the characters use phantom props (silverware et al suggested by gestures in the air), loosing themselves further from the real world’s concreteness.
“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
– Tom, The Glass Menagerie
The first act sets Cherry Jones’ mother figure, Amanda, centre stage. Her rounded Southern syllables fill the theatre with the weight and pace of molasses. While Laura ritually winds her gramophone, Amanda’s motor-mouth needs no winding up. She is resourceful, magnetic, and loves her children entirely too much. Her offspring’s troubled faces are cowed by the light of her clinging, tender expectations. Like Blanche DuBois, Amanda convinces herself that a poetic Southern drawl and tireless bluster can conjure a tolerable world. Predictably, she is painfully mistaken.
The Glass Menagerie’s second act eventually tears down those imaginary walls. But before a traumatic finish, there is a beautiful scene of whole-hearted catharsis where the forever scarred real world is briefly plastered over. It is Williams setting right his own mistakes. Haunted by leaving his own crippled sister to die, he lets Laura be reunited with her childhood love. Gentleman caller Jim (a bashful Brian J. Smith), teaches her to dance, while she introduces him to her glass figurines. It is a powerful, rose-tinted moment, where a playwright can atone for his sins, where theatre’s redemptive artifice shines brightest: showing itself as a prism/vacuum where the clock can withstand being turned back. Williams grants his lost sister a moment of exquisite happiness, glimpsed in the refracted glass of fantasy. While events may conspire against her (in Laura’s reality-bound counterpart and the play’s devastating climax), it is in this dance that Williams pours his heart, and it’s where I’d prefer to leave mine.