It’s a sign that London theatre is beginning to settle back into its familiar patterns when spring and summer heralds the arrival of American stars keen to make their mark on the West End stage. The last summer before covid it was Sally Field and Bill Pullman in the Old Vic’s All My Sons with Pullman clearly enjoying the experience so much he’s back again, rehearsing with David Harbour for performances of Mad House in late June. Jake Gyllenhaal’s acclaimed Broadway appearance in Sunday in the Park With George was scheduled to transfer in that infamous summer of 2020 while Patti LuPone who came for Marianne Elliott’s Company in 2018 has taken the production back to Broadway with her where it is currently playing.
Now it is the turn of Amy Adams, already an acclaimed and multi Oscar nominated film actor with some notable stage experience in the US, making her West End debut in Jeremy Herrin’s new version of The Glass Menagerie, a play that has been perhaps a little over produced in the UK in recent years with notable versions at the Arcola in 2019 and another starring American actor Cherry Jones also at the Duke of York’s in 2017 making her UK debut as the fragile and affected Amanda Wingfield.
As well as seeing Tennessee Williams’s play with astonishing regularity, its basis in the playwrights own family history and experience is its most commonly reproduced fact, and one that gives added meaning and depth to an elusive and delicately crafted piece about a family trapped between their semi-imagined past and a desired future. But focusing almost exclusively on the semi-autobiographical nature of The Glass Menagerie takes away from its more interesting discussion on the haunting reconstruction of memory and the falsity of both remembrances, and indeed theatre, in bringing to life events and people long since faded away. Herrin’s production steps away from some of the more traditional approaches to applaud Williams’s technique as a conjurer, a stager of scenes that capture the fleeting moment and its cumulative effect.
Herrin through his Headlong Theatre Company tends to think a little differently about the productions he directs, telling immersive stories but with lively approaches to engagement including the use of video screens, music and lighting to enhance or amplify the overall experience and to convey complex messages or political themes as he did recently with Best of Enemies and with challenging, almost confrontational pieces like People, Places and Things and The Nether before that. Two big decisions define this production of The Glass Menagerie, the first slightly adjusts how the story is usually narrated which leads to the second, a design choice derived solely from character and the memory theme.
Williams leaves the storytelling duties to his dramatic proxy Tom Wingfield, son of Amanda and brother to the fragile Laura, who steps out of the story to speak to the audience from a period decades later while also performing as himself in the family scenes he is retelling. Herrin has separated these two versions of the man into two characters, one the older version of Tom casting his mind back and critically reflecting on these crucial months in the small St Lewis flat, while the other is the young, frustrated man of the house desperate to escape the stifling heat of his relations and their expectations of and for him.
The result is rather effective, reducing the burden on a single actor to carry most of the show while able to draw a much starker contrast between the young Tom filled with aspiration for adventure and the man who must live with the consequences of his actions at the end of the play, a broken wretch unable to escape his guilt or to reconcile his disappointment with how his life has turned out. It makes tangible a really quite central theme in Williams’s work – the unceremonious shattering of illusion that leaves characters with nothing but despair, breaking through the romance of their intentions and those wistful hopes of something better, to find only ugliness and disillusion when they are left with the truth.
Like Chekov, Williams’s characters are living in falsely created worlds of their own, ones in which hope is the only thing they have to cling to and is often forcibly taken from them during the course of the play. But while Chekhov creations tend to look towards an imagined brighter future blocked merely by practicality – the need to sell a property or to move to the city – Williams’s characters are mired in their past and dream only of a future that takes them back to happier times. The present never seems to exist for them as they lose themselves in the recollection of halcyon days or seek escape to an unspecified future freedom where they will shake off their own personalities and become different, happier people.
Seeing two version of Tom in this production of The Glass Menagerie shows us the inherent falsity in the notion that the future is a better place than the past. The future Tom is not a man who has found contentment or even confidence through travel or experience, and although he has got what he wanted, it is clear that he has never escaped himself or the man that he used to be. It is a smart and meaningful dramatic choice from Herrin, one that grasps the clues that Williams places throughout the text to expand the character from regretful brother to someone who has lost the essence of himself through searching for it, and comes to view the events of this play as the turning point that continues to torture his conscience.
The second choice that Herrin makes is in designing a more symbolic location for the play by using its theatrical status to create sparse representative spaces for the action where this memory momentarily comes to life. There is a deliberate construct in Williams’s play which is essentially false, a story told from one perspective by a man who was there piecing together fragments of memories which he brings to life before the audience. Williams didn’t chose to write this as a 1930s family whose life occurs in chronological procession but as a casting back from the future with all the overtones of regret and melancholy that this evokes. Nor are we to assume that all the scenes necessarily occurred in the order in which we see them – although some clearly follow on from earlier discussion – but are fragments of experience, of conversations and irritations that occur to Tom while living at home with his mother happening across no specified time period. The events we see created could have occurred across weeks, even years building to a point at which Tom takes decisive action – a culmination we never actually see but only hear about in retrospect.
Herrin uses the ambiguity of structure to create two spaces on stage, a central black platform with minimal props where the family home exists and a surrounding area cluttered with junk, furniture and props that nod to a world beyond the Wingfield establishment while also holding a rehearsal room quality. The actors move between these spaces, sometimes sitting and waiting on the edges for their cue but only truly becoming their characters either standing on or in close proximity to the central platform. Designed by Vicki Mortimer who has considerable experience of creating memory-laden sets (see also Follies), the space is purposefully unremarkable, reflecting the layered fictions within Williams’s structure that make his scenarios real but also figments of imagination at the same time.
This illusory quality is aided by the feeling of the 1960s that runs through the visual style of the show, not only in Edward K. Gibbon’s costumes but also Ash J. Woodward’s video design that creates patterns of refracted colour as though we are seeing these people through a distorting prism of glass – manifest in Mortimer’s sizeable glass cabinet filled with treasures that dominates the stage, the only tangible physical object in their home. It suggests that Tom’s memory is not strong enough to create the 1930s without a little of his present era bleeding in, making him unreliable as a narrator who twists and reforms the past in order to understand his present self. This is reinforced by the decision to physically engage in his own memories, interacting with his mother and sister as though he were there, holding up props and squeezing their shoulders, almost nudging his memories to life and unable to resist returning to those times even in this other guise.
As the older Tom, Paul Hilton has command of this story, welcoming the audience but never allowing them to become to comfortably ensconced. As the action unfolds, Hilton is almost ever present, reacting to activity and often wincing in pain as the past swims before Tom once more, wanting to be part of it all once more but increasingly affected by it. There is anger and resentment in the performance, but also frustration with himself as the events and their outcomes visible nag at his conscience. Tom Glynn-Carney plays his younger self as a distant and irritable figure with some affection for his family but using drink, movies and work as a place to escape the responsibilities that claw at him. Young Tom is rarely sympathetic and sometimes even cruel but Glynn-Carney and Hilton align their approaches to create consistency between the eras.
Adams is a superb Amanda, a more mumsy interpretation of the role than often seen but capturing just the right degree of fussing and largely wholesome parent trying to kickstart her children into life while seeing them as an opportunity to live out her own failed dreams. Amanda is a character that also lives in the past creating further layers of memory within Tom’s singular memory, trapped in her own youthful beauty and abundance of ‘gentleman callers’ that belie the regret she feels about the way her life has panned out. Like the older Tom, Amanda is frustrated by her failure to attain the life that was once promised to her, but Adams steers away from the obvious Blanche Dubois possibilities to create a neat, almost prim woman whose softly spoken approach contains real authority in controlling her adult children.
Adams treads a very nice line between being an embarrassing mother and wanting to find something for herself. She allows her character to come alive when Jim O’Connor finally visits, almost flirting with him herself and swept up in her blustering excitement about the evening and its possibilities. Adams shows that Amanda too is looking for escape, not in the physical sense like Tom, but at least in her imagination, allowing hope of something new to take hold of her while never forgetting the economic and maternal responsibilities that return her to the ground. It is a quieter version of Amanda, but very effective in this more symbolic production.
Laura and gentleman caller Jim really have their moment in Scene VII, left alone on stage to discuss the glass menagerie and the fragility of their lives. Lizzie Annis’s Laura has been in the background before this, talked about and momentarily passing through the scene but here she emerges from her shyness and Annis draws the parallels with the delicacy of her ornaments and a similar past-loving hopefulness as her mother. Victor Alli gives Jim a depth of compassion which makes their decisive conversation compelling showing, unlike the Wingfields, that he lives in the present, happy to reminisce for a few hours but upfront and truthful about who he is and his limitations.
Most of this comes together best in the second half of Herrin’s show where the staging concept along with Williams’s story and the performances, catch fire while the first part of the production is still a little disjointed. But as Williams’s structural approach and characterisation start to take hold, Herrin’s production becomes compelling, even haunting in moments that generates spontaneous emotional reactions from its audience. While it is probably time to let the play rest for a while, the three productions in five years have all had something slightly different to contribute and Herrin’s interpretation with Adams at the helm has certainly added further layers of meaning.