Rajvi Glasbrook-Griffiths casts a critical eye over Theatr Pena latest production, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams at Riverfront Arts Centre, Newport.
The most autobiographical of Tennessee Williams’ plays, The Glass Menagerie is an expression of ‘plastic’ theatre. Classical unity of time and place is present only for the narrator to then step out from in this ‘memory play’ to tussle between within and without. It is a text aware of its textuality; memory aware of its hazy limitations.
The expository scene makes this production’s disconnect stark. Williams’ intentionally detailed production notes outline music, lighting and mood precisely. The set is to be ‘dim and poetic’, the lighting to illuminate Laura’s virginal innocence and music to resound absurdity and tragic sadness. Neither light nor music are used with sufficient power as instruments of emotional impact.
The photograph of the father, intended to be ‘ineluctably smiling’ and a constant overhanging reminder of the past is here, literally, lacking as a looming presence for the past. The apartment and its fire-escape, oppressive trap for Tom and Amanda and refuge from reality for Laura, are, here, roomy and bright. Director’s licence granted, there is failure to create essential, palpable claustrophobia.
Staging is the not the only element where Williams’ vision is ignored. The newspaper with Franco’s victory headlined is not made clear enough and there are no signs to bear key symbolic and dramatically intentional messages, such as ‘Annunciation’ or ‘The Accent of a Coming Foot’. Consequently, not only are episodic shifts undefined, important Christian imagery is overlooked and limited political and social context is provided, except through script. This is significant as the Great Depression is deeply connected with all of the characters’ conditions and the tremulous American Dream is as frail and on the verge of shattering as Laura’s finite glass creatures.
In Williams’ play, time is of the essence as none of the characters live in the present. Amanda basks in real or imagined memories of her glorious Southern belle girlhood; Tom goes ‘to the movies’ (‘instead of moving’); public-speaking-learning Jim was former lead in The Pirates of Penzance; and Laura inhabits the delicate universe of her glass menagerie. She comes alive only within the security of illusion. Inversely, there is no financial security or certainty of what the future will bring – lights go out as a result of unpaid bills whilst ‘the present becomes future, the future present and the past turns into everlasting regret’. Time remains ‘the longest distance between two places’.
Theatr Pena’s production does not convey these subtle distances between time and space – just one instance where the text has been fundamentally misunderstood. Its presentation of events in this deeply complex emotional play is simplistic and its direction of characters shallow.
Laura, arguably the most powerful character in the play, is, in this production, insipid instead of delicate, shy as opposed to quietly strange, awkward rather than otherworldly, and her limp comes and goes like the accent. She is not directed with any consistently evident defect and so it is difficult to relate to her vulnerability. This is significant because it is within Laura’s vulnerability that her inadvertent power resides. Tennessee Williams’ own guilt at not being able to aid his beloved, mentally damaged sister, Rose, never left him. The conflict that rages between self-fulfilment and society is encapsulated by the glass unicorn in Laura’s menagerie that has its horn broken by Jim. To conform is to be ‘just like all the other horses’; parts of self must be chipped away or broken.
Amanda is played convincingly by Rosamund Shelley. She invokes appropriate balance between tragedy, misunderstood loneliness and anxiety. The indignity, as Amanda would view it, of selling magazine subscriptions and being hung-up upon gives us ‘as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at.’ Yet, she plays too sympathetic a character too early. Amanda’s acid-tongue and torturous cruelties become diluted, her querulous, puritanical, manipulation are downplayed.
Simultaneously, Rhys Meredith’s Tom is unconvincing and too robust in the face of his mother’s jarring enervation. The quarrels between mother and son lack energy and conviction. Their fight isn’t angry and helpless enough. Likewise their rare moments of reconciliation are not gentle enough. The subtle push and pull and push and push of their eroding relationship, connected by the thread of their — ‘ours’ — Laura, isn’t projected with the necessary emotional intelligence.
Rhys Meredith’s bows as Tom are insufficiently ‘slight’; his withdrawals carry no poignancy. Director, Erica Eirian, leaves absent DH Lawrence’s influence over sexual distortedness and conflict: Laura is childlike, Amanda repressed, and Tom, like his playwright, adjusting to homosexuality. Yet, Tom’s exclamation marked ‘No!’ in response to his mother’s query regarding ‘a nice young lady at the warehouse’ is not acted sharply enough. A vital opportunity is missed.
Tom’s guilt runs deeply through the text in poetic reflection of Williams’ own guilt. Orpheus and Eurydice remind us that looking back is damaging. Theatre Pena’s production remind us that imagination, memory and poetry, albeit easy refuge for Amanda, Laura and ‘selfish dreamer’, Tom, are challenging to stage. Perhaps that is why this is such a disappointing production, failing to shine light upon the heart and purpose of the play.