Thomas ‘Tennessee’ Williams is widely regarded as one of the great American playwrights, the quality and extent of his output in the middle of the last century ensuring that his work still continues to form a staple diet for professional and amateur theatre all over the world. The Royal Exchange have chosen his first (and most autobiographical) play to kickstart its Autumn/Winter season, and after recent upheavals and some very odd programming decisions by this Mancunian institution, it is a welcome and sparkling return to form.
‘The Glass Menagerie’ is famously a ‘memory play’ told from the flawed perspective of the narrator Tom (Joshua James), unpacking his tense relationship with Mother Amanda Wingfield (Geraldine Somerville) and sister Laura (Rhiannon Clements) as they struggle to make ends meet in 1930’s St Louis. All the hallmarks of William’s later greatness are present in this breakthrough work; Amanda is a narcissist living on the glory of her faded beauty; Laura, inhibited by her disability has retreated into a safe fantasy world of the plays title, whilst dilettante Tom dreams of escape from his confining circumstances. Into this Freudian family nightmare walks Jim (Eloka Ivo), a ‘gentleman caller’, on whom Laura and Amanda pin their hopes of a more secure future, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that it won’t end well for any of the protagonists.
Director Atri Banerjee cut his teeth as an Associate Director in this beautiful theatre, graduating to win critical acclaim for his 2019 reimagining of ‘Hobson’s Choice’. He is carving a career as one of the most interesting and inventive creative forces in northern theatre, his triumphant ‘Kes’ in Bolton earlier this year further cementing that reputation. Originally planned to be staged in Spring 2020, the pandemic induced two-year hiatus prompted a radical rethink of both the design and message that Banerjee and Designer Rose Vize wished to convey; lost opportunity and the debilitating effect of solitude emerge as themes to be explored.
They invoke the feeling of the play as a fragmented memory, a spare, stripped back set and minimalist props circling the stage as if insignificant details have faded into nothing as the years have passed, leaving only the visceral language and raw emotion behind. A large black turbine with a huge neon lettering ‘PARADISE’ set on top, dominates the centre stage, moving at differing speeds throughout the performance, according to the kinetic energy being produced by the scenes played out under its huge arms. It is a metaphorical representation of the emotion that these memories stir in the narrator and the unattainable nature of a perfect life; a visual heartbeat for the audience.
The bare, almost cold, design pushes the audience to concentrate solely on the text and this simple device reveals the sheer beauty of the writing to startling effect. Whether it is Amanda pitying ‘bird like women, without any nest’, unconsciously describing her own reduced and impecunious state, or Tom ‘suspended in the mist over Berchtesgaden, caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella’ predicting and reflecting on the horror of WWII, the language still feels freshly minted nearly eighty years after it was first written.
Familiar scenes are given fresh impetus, most notably Laura describing the alienating effect that physical disability can have on self confidence, portrayed by Clements with heartfelt authenticity, this juxtaposes well with the hilarity of her imagined love scene with Jim (imagine Whitney Houston meets Dirty Dancing and you have the vibe!). Ivo brings the right combination of overconfidence and insecurity to the role of Jim, his physicality and delivery bringing out the humour in lines that would be flat in other hands. The flirtatious scenes with Amanda were toe curlingly realistic and funny with Somerville morphing perfectly into the brittle and vain Amanda, a circle that is now complete as she portrayed Laura on the same stage over 30 years ago. James completes the acting quartet with his delicate portrayal of Tom; gaunt, spare frame and plaintive delivery meshing well into this ethereal yet intimate production.
The cockpit atmosphere of the Royal Exchange adds to this atmosphere, and you can feel the audience leaning into the crisp, clear delivery. It is clear that Banerjee feels very comfortable directing here, utilising the circular space deftly to create an almost confessional atmosphere, a lesson other recent directors here would do well to heed in future.
The Royal Exchange built its formidable reputation on a combination of exciting new writing and innovative interpretation of the classic theatrical canon, this production falls firmly into the latter category. Some will crave a more realistic interpretation, but Banerjee and the creative team have produced a relevant and beguiling piece that showcases this magnificent play to wonderful effect.
The Glass Menagerie continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 8th October, https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 7th September 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★