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A CurtainUp London Review
The Glass Menagerie
I remember as a little girl having glass animals and I also remember how easily they broke. None of them survived my childhood because I was too clumsy. I found the play sad and emotional although they were people all around me in the audience who were claiming to be "really enjoying it!" I can't watch this play of Tennessee Williams without seeing what damage a mother can do to her children when she intends them no harm. Take the incident of the Secretarial College which Laura drops out of without telling her mother. The mother is trying to get the daughter an employable skill so that she doesn't end up in poverty if no gentleman caller or potential husband materialises. The fact that the daughter is so socially inept that she cannot cope with the pace of the college, nor discuss this with her mother or brother, is very sad. I suppose when Williams called his play The Glass Menagerie he was referring not just to the brittle fragility of Laura, but to the whole family: Amanda living in her fantasy past of what might have been and Tom tied down to a job he hates in order to support his deserted mother and sister as well as the damaged young girl.
Rupert Goold has taken on board some of the reservations about the New York production and designer Matthew Wright sets his play in a sitting room with the dining room to the rear. The furniture is functional but almost shoddy. The cast iron fire escape drops from high above and curves round the room to form a terrace area. To the sides and rear are the shadowy images of ladders and stairs forming boxes and confining the players. A ring of spotlights sits high above the playing circle. It is effective at putting the play in its Depression period and showing us a dreamlike interpretation of the psychological confines of dysfunctional families. The slow motion of family routines like meal times and the impression of faint tinkling music give the production its ethereal quality. The striped lighting effects are used to dim areas not in play. As Tom describes the dancehall, a motorised mirror ball bathes the stage with perforated spots of light.
Jessica Lange isn't afraid to give an unsympathetic portrayal of Amanda as she badgers her daughter when her disappointment has risen to the surface. She looks ghastly in her Victorian muslin ball gown, the dress falling apart with age. Don't we hate the way she swishes the full skirt in front of the Gentleman Caller to give a glimpse of her legs in a manner intended as flirtatious, but which is actually stomach churning. We see her desperation as she tries to sell to other members of the social club, the Daughters of the American Revolution. In the final scene when Mrs Wingfield turns vitriolic with rage and her daughter crumbles up in a beautifully nuanced performance from Amanda Hale, the emotional index of the play is almost unbearable. When Mrs Wingfield says, "You live in a dream!" to Laura, we all think it's a bad case of projection. It must have been very confusing for everyone to have the mother's character having the same name as the actress playing the daughter!
Ed Stoppard seethes with the resentment of an artist who is stifled by obligation and shamed by the memories of his sister. He has the casting advantage with Amanda Hale looking as if they could be brother and sister, both dark haired, both with long sensitive faces with expressive eyes. To my English ears the Southern accents are adequate. Mark Umbers is tall and handsome but even as he kisses Laura, no-one in the audience could surely believe that this play could have a happy ending.
For more about Tennessee Williams and his work, and links to other reviews, see our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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