Tennessee Williams would go on to write greater, more complex and profound plays than The Glass Menagerie (1944), his first big Broadway success. And yet there’s something about this early work that goes straight to the heart. With its thinly-veiled autobiographical elements, sometimes self-conscious poetic flourishes and flirtations with experimentation, The Glass Menagerie feels like the work of a playwright just on the cusp of finding his voice. Possessed of a slightness and quaintness that Williams’s later work would tend to eschew, it’s an almost-great play and that almost-greatness is, I think, part of what makes the piece so touching and endearing. Theatre producers would seem to agree about the play’s appeal given the amount of times that it’s been revived in the last few years. 2008 saw Brenda Blethyn tackling the role of Amanda in a touring production directed by Braham Murray that apparently emphasised the play’s comedy. The previous year saw the great Jessica Lange take on the role in a magnificent production in London’s West End directed by Rupert Goold that brought out the melancholy, lyricism and poignancy of the piece. With stunning work from Lange, Amanda Hale as Laura and Mark Umbers as Jim, the Gentleman Caller, it’s one of my favourite productions of all time.
Having loved Goold’s version so much I was somewhat trepidacious about seeing Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production of the play, which opens next Wednesday at the Young Vic and is currently in previews. But since I find it hard to resist a Williams fix, especially one that has such a strong cast (Deborah Findlay, Sinéad Matthews, Leo Bill and Kyle Soller) attached to it, I decided to give The Glass Menagerie another go. I couldn’t be happier that I did. Hill-Gibbins’s production doesn’t quite displace Goold’s in my affections but it’s undoubtedly a compelling and moving account of this most personal and elegiac of plays. The following remarks were written after the third preview of the play on 13th November.
The protagonists of The Glass Menagerie are the Wingfield family: mother Amanda, daughter Laura and son Tom, a budding poet and frustrated shoe-factory hand whose direct-to-audience reminiscences structure the piece. Deserted by the children’s father - “a telephone man who fell in love with long-distances” - the family’s hand-to-mouth existence contrasts sharply with Amanda’s recollections of her past in Blue Mountain, Mississippi, a history that she furiously romanticises as she recalls the succession of “gentleman callers” who paid her visits. Like several of Williams’s female protagonists, conditioned to fear a future as “unmarried women … barely tolerated … and eating the crust of humility all their life,” Amanda sees a man as the key to the family’s hopes, and encourages Tom to bring home a work colleague, Jim, as a suitor for Laura. Jim’s visit provides the dramatic climax to the play; it's a classic scene in which the dreamy, disabled Laura - who's more at ease when playing with the glass animals in her collection than when engaging in human contact - is momentarily awakened out of her reveries, only to have her hopes cruelly shattered.
The talented Hill-Gibbins (who scored a big hit at the YV earlier this year with his revival of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane) gives the play a tasteful, sensitive but not overly reverential staging here. Though it transforms the Young Vic in a striking way, at first glance Jeremy Herbert’s set looks rather ungainly, with a grim fire-escape surrounding the family’s apartment and a red curtain rising and falling on the action. But the space is fairly well used (though sightlines may be a problem from some seats), and the design - aided by excellent live piano music composed by Dario Marianelli and eloquent lighting by James Farncombe- succeeds in effectively presenting the drama as “a memory” that’s playing out (repeatedly, one feels) in Tom’s head.
But what counts the most in a work as intimate as The Glass Menagerie is the actors’ interplay and the four performances here are memorable and finely detailed across the board. Deborah Findlay is responsible for two of my most cherished stage performances (as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale and Mother Clap in Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House at the NT in 2001) and I was excited and curious to see her take on her first Williams heroine. It’s easy to reduce the oppressive Amanda to a monster figure - an over-bearing Mommy Dearest - and Findlay is excessively brassy at times; hollering “Rise and shine!” at Tom she sounds more like a sergeant major than a Southern belle. But if the performance lacks the inventive lyricism that Lange brought to the role, Findlay still finds plenty of variety in the character: humour, anger, flirtatiousness, as well as a clear-eyed practical streak that offsets Amanda’s silliness and bullying interference in her children’s lives. “There is much to admire in Amanda,” Williams insisted, “as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at,” and the actress succeeds in unearthing some of those grace notes throughout. Findlay is at her funniest when Amanda is swinging into fluttery, gracious-hostess overdrive, but she gives the character dignity too. This is an Amanda who has clearly learnt the hard way that life requires “Spartan endurance.” Findlay’s well-modulated performance shows the toll that Amanda’s behaviour takes on her children, as well as the deep affection and concern that motivates her.
As Tom, Leo Bill expertly conveys the character’s deep frustration and his saving wit (“I’ll rise - but I won’t shine”); he handles the audience-address with great skill and there are lovely, surprising details in the performance: his look of disgust as he watches Amanda schmoozing Jim is prodigious. The always-original Sinéad Matthews makes a superb Laura; her scratchy, emotion-filled voice and jerky movements (never overdone) pierce the defences. Playing one of the first of the misfit-dreamers to whom Williams plays consistently give voice, Matthews endows the character with fragility and an odd resilience, and even her sometimes-wavering American accent seems an eloquent expression of the character’s tentativeness. I never thought I’d see a better account of the candle-lit scene in which Laura connects with Jim than that played by Hale and Umbers in the Goold production. But the sequence is just as powerful and affecting here, and Kyle Soller is absolutely wonderful at revealing both the conceit and the sense of disillusionment lurking under his Gentleman Caller’s easy affability. All four actors show sensitivity to the rhythms of Williams’s dialogue, the gorgeous, robust language that melts the heart: “We have to do all that we can to build ourselves up. In these trying times we live in, all that we have to cling to is - each other…”
What Hill-Gibbins and his team are so good at bringing out is the play’s acute analysis of family dynamics, and the sense of entrapment and desire for escape, love mixed with cruelty and repression, that characterises the Wingfields’s interactions and makes the play one of the most perceptive works ever written on the complexity of parent-child (and sibling) bonds. Full of feeling and insight, this is an excellent production that deserves to be a big success.
The play ran for 2 hours 40 minutes on Saturday night. It’s booking until 1st January. So go!