Tag Archives: The Glass Menagerie

Streetcars, Smoke and Southern Belles: Contemporary Approaches to Tennessee Williams

Summer and Smoke Streetcar and Glass Menagerie

In the week that National Theatre at Home broadcasts the Young Vic’s superb 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s timely to note how representations of Tennessee Williams’s work has changed as a result, with a broadening of approaches particularly visible in the last 18-months. As a great American dramatist, Williams’s timeless understanding of human emotion and the particularly explosive dynamics of family groups has always been such a notable feature of his writing and for which the latest crop of productions have scruitinised his work. There has been a shift from period-focused productions that situate Williams’s play squarely in their 1940s and 1950s context to more contemporary or undefinable settings, while entirely reinterpreted productions of big hitters StreetcarCat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, which recur with some frequency, have shared the limelight with less celebrated plays as directors made an impassioned case for the value of Williams’s wider portfolio and new ways of seeing his work.

The screening of the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire via National Theatre at Home, available since last Thursday, is a valuable reminder of what a landmark production this was in several ways, beautifully skirting the boundaries of reality and illusion so redolent of Williams’s tone and characters. Benedict Andrews’s modern approach brought revelatory insight to this frequently performed classic, representing Blanche as a vulnerable predator whose declining mental health is so tangibly associated with a youthful tragedy and the subsequent denial of her natural instincts. There’s nothing timid about the nature of desire in Andrews interpretation, it is passionate, explosive and ultimately damaging, and since 2014, productions have increasingly taken this approach to staging the Williams canon.

Rediscovering the Emotional Power of ‘Lesser’ Works

The most significant consequence of this has been for venues to investigate the broader work that Williams has produced. A prolific playwright with over 100 full length and One Act credits, the opportunity to see and reassess some of these pieces has been a fascinating one. Rebecca Frecknall’s Summer and Smoke for the Almeida which earned a West End transfer to the Duke of York’s, has perhaps done more than any other Williams production in the last decade to broaden our perspective of the writer. Stripping the production of staging and locational debris, Frecknall’s production brought a powerful resonance to the central relationship between socially awkward Alma and lonely Doctor John that was as affecting and emotionally loaded as anything you’ll see in Streetcar or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The focus on the tentative intimacy between these two fragile personalities was spellbinding as they movingly failed to find a rhythm, always out of step with each other on personal trajectories that unravelled and reconstructed their characters, making it impossible to be together.

Frecknall understood the rhythm of Williams’s writing so well, the heartbeat of a play in which its two protagonists are so trapped withing their own nature and so confined by the public perception of their personality that they are unable to respond to deeper calls within themselves. For Alma these are the earthier, animalistic impulses of attraction, whereas for John it is the more soulful demands of his heart. The clarity and power of this was both tangible and devastating in Frecknall’s production, making a startling case for the value of this rarely seen play.

Theatre Clywd’s production of Orpheus Descending which transferred to the Menier is by no means Williams’s best writing, to a degree lacking the simmering tension of family secrets, using the arrival of a stranger to unlock the past which partially lessens the impact of its consequences. Yet, this enjoyable version had much to say on Williams’s theme of caged personalities as store owner Lady was drawn to drifter Val. Here we particularly felt Williams’s empathy both for women who subvert their impulses as Lady does through her respectable marriage to Torrance, and for those whose natural exuberance and persistence destroys them as it does with Carol Cutrere. This insight really gets to the heart of so much of Williams’s work as the external ordinariness of his female characters in particular contrasts with the raging unfulfilled desires within them. Therein lies their essential tragedy, that small-town society disapproves of and sometimes actively persecutes the sexual need and expression of the Carols and Blanches in Williams’s plays but is more accepting of male promiscuity, confines the female characters even further, creating shame and self-loathing that empathetically drives them to the physical and psychological edge of society .

Finally, the King’s Head put together two rarely seen short-plays for its Southern Belles programme in July 2019 exploring sexuality and gender in the One Act pieces Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. This proved a meaningful double bill, one that confirms Williams’s interested in hidden, unconstrainable and ultimately destructive emotional layers within the individual. There was also a fascinating power dynamic in both duologues that questioned how these two relationships were affected by monetary transaction and social status. In both an ’employer’ figure utilises their seniority to make demands they are not longer able to constrain, wrongly (perhaps) assuming the other returned their feelings. What was so interesting about Jamie Armitage’s approach was that central uncertainty, showing how commandingly Williams could relay shifting power dynamics, building scenes to a point where the narrative and the lead characters must make an all or nothing play, leaving them vulnerable and exposed.

Staging Simplicity 

Supporting these internalised and more emotionally suggestive approaches in which the external need to be ‘respectable’ contends with a character’s natural and often wilder impulses, staging approaches have become increasingly simplified and symbolic, emphasising atmosphere and tone.  A general trend across theatre which has also released the works of Chekhov and Pinter from their period confinement, with notional rather than explicit set detail contributing to this wider reassessment of Williams’s themes.

Both Southern Belles and Orpheus Descending performed in the three-quarter round opted for representative sets, implying just enough reality to indicate setting and era to the audience while clearing the main performance space for the interior character experience to fill the room. Designer Jonathan Fensom implied the inside of Lady’s store with a wooden slatted backdrop, representative seating area and a hint of the other rooms. Similiarly, Sarah Mercadé for Southern Belles also took an indicative approach with a few carefully positioned  pieces of furniture, while draping the small King’s Head auditorium in pink fabric. Both designers provided just enough visual information to prompt the audience’s imagination, while giving the actors a platform to prioritise intimacy between the characters and their emotional excavation.

Arguably, this simplicity works best in smaller spaces and when Benedict Andrews took a similarly parred-back approach to his disappointing 2017 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which designer Magda Willi created a monied and stylishly-minimised set, the oddly cold atmosphere failed to fill the Apollo’s cavernous space and gave the production a hollow ring. Set design has to reflect the heat within Williams’s plays, so it is interesting that Summer and Smoke had no such problems when it transferred to the Duke of York’s where its entirely representative set worked just as powerfully in the close confines of the Almeida as it did later in the West End. Very little in Tom Scutt’s design indicated the play’s location or era, instead a semi-circle of pianos, a metronome and lighting became the physical substance of a play that used music and beat to chart the emotional rhythm of the central relationship with considerable success, leading us back to Williams’s fascination with the line between reality and illusion.

James Macdonald’s Night of the Iguana may have bucked the trend for simpler sets last year but strong characterisation by Clive Owen and Lia Williams overcame the cartoony background to give a captivating depth to the conversations between the alcoholic cleric and the unassuming traveller. In spite of this, the general trend since Andrews Streetcar has been a sharper focus on using the text and Williams’s language to create tone and claustrophobic tension between the characters – the fact that budget and space limitations has meant this way of looking at Williams’s work has emerged largely from the smaller Off-West End and Fringe venues is testament to their influence within the industry where visual trends don’t just filter down from the top.

A New Context – The Future of Characterisation

Some of the most fascinating developments have been in reconceiving a play in its entirety, changing not just its era but thinking about character and context that take interpretations of Williams’s work in quite different and exciting new directions. Making a case for the absolute universality of the writer’s emotional constructs, director Femi Elufowoju jr completely reimagined The Glass Menagerie at the Arcola last autumn, retaining its period setting but making the working-class Wingfield family African-American – a decision which worked seamlessly, adding a fresh dimension to a well-worn story.  With its notes of faded dreams and missed opportunities, the production developed an added nuance without changing a word of the original text, shifting the emphasise to the limitations of the American Dream and its aspirations while adding a deeper but valuable social and political commentary – a layer that Marianne Elliott also extracted from her similar treatment of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Who knows what further levels Ivo van Hove would have discovered (or lost) in slimming Williams’s play to two hours, and performing it in French by a Parisian company, led by the Belgian director. With Isabelle Huppert  playing the role of Amanda, this postponed production, which was due to arrive at the Barbican in early June as the second stop on a European tour, may be another theatre casualty of the pandemic, but its very existence speaks to a new interest in reinterpreting Williams and examining the application of his themes in different international contexts, even in translation.

These productions open enormous possibilities for the future of Williams’s work where the universality of the human experience and the ways in which societies attempt to define and confine the individual are applied to entirely new scenarios. The destructive impulses that Williams writes about are not unique to American society and if Inua Ellams can relocate Chekhov to Nigeria, then Williams can exist anywhere that a physical heat and secrets drive human behaviour.  Recent productions continue to push the boundaries of interpretation, increasing our understanding and appreciation of one of the twentieth-century’s most enduring playwrights. ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic’ Blanche exclaims in A Streetcar Named Desire; no matter how and where his plays are staged Williams always shows us the painful fragility of both. Let’s keep pushing.

A Streetcar Named Desire is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until Thursday 28 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Glass Menagerie – Arcola Theatre

The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre

“The tyranny of women” is at the centre of Tennessee Williams first and most autobiographical play. Every time audiences see this work about family, memory and the cost of self-determination, new layers are revealed. Now, in a co-production with the Watford Palace, the Arcola Theatre has redefined Williams’s work for the twenty-first century by shifting the action to an African American household in the heart of St Louis. If this concept sounds familiar its because the Young Vic has successfully applied the same treatment to Arthur Miller in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production of Death of a Salesman which opened to rave reviews. The Arcola’s version of The Glass Menagerie is sure to do the same.

A recent, and very classy, revival directed by John Tiffany played at the Duke of York’s a couple of years ago, but Femi Elufowoju jr’s new production uses the intimacy of the Arcola to set Williams’s seminal drama in an entirely new context without changing a word. Like Elliot and Cromwell’s Death of a Salesman, transposing the characters to a different type of family, entirely redraws the context in which they live. The poverty of the Wingfields, the deluded nature of their dreams and Amanda’s almost manic desperation for her daughter to find a suitable husband are further tinged with impossibility when the first tentative moves towards racial and gender equality were still decades away.

The context of Williams very domestic play is significant and while the action barely leaves the Wingfield home except to a small terrace on the fire escape, the external world of 1930s America keeps bursting in. Within the action of the play we see a continual battle between memories, dreams and reality in which each of the characters tries to come to terms with the limitations of their current lives. In one sense they all seek the ideals of the American Dream, hoping for success, happiness and family contentment that society urges them to attain, yet the truth of life in St Louis in 1937 is far uglier – Tom works in a relatively junior position in the local warehouse, while his shy and emotionally broken sister Laura has only secretarial work or marriage before her.

The great tragedy of The Glass Menagerie is how hard and fruitlessly these characters struggle to shake off the ties of the past, their abandonment by the father and husband that matriarch Amanda still idolises and her insistence on living with the customs and manners of twenty years before. Just as past and future, dreams and reality pull against one another, so too do the masculine and feminine energies of the play; in Williams famous line it is Amanda’s emotional tyranny over her children that shapes the drama, driving Tom’s need to escape her suffocation with nights at the movies, drunkenness and a flirtation with the Merchant Navy, which acts in perfect balance with the soft, quiet delicacy of Laura’s unassuming gentleness.

What is clear from Elufowoju jr’s production is the overall fragility of the world in which these characters exist; one wrong move and jobs can be lost leaving a family destitute, but they must also tread on emotional eggshells around one another, afraid to speak their minds and give voice to their true aspirations. Amanda’s rather nervy state of mind forces her children to hide truths about their lives and while she can be fearsome, nagging or shouting them into submission, this production makes clear that these behaviours come from a place of fear, one which is amplified for an African American family trying to retain respectability in a town that would never notice if they fall.

Rebecca Brower’s set does wonders with the tiny Arcola space, using the main stage as the Wingfield sitting and dining rooms that attempts refinement, while adding fire-escape staircases to utilise the permanent balcony which doubles as the vital terrace where Tom escapes to look at the moon and listen to life-giving music that emanates from the Palace dancehall across the road. Brower neatly implies the close tenement living with washing lines and other people’s windows visible on the rear wall, while the main room is a small space in which the family also sleep on rolled-out mattresses placed on the floor. The set carefully facilitates the physically confines of the Wingfield home and the emotional combustion that erupts between its three residents.

What Elufowoju jr does so well is to develop and manage the growing intensity as the action unfolds. Williams sets this up as a memory play with Tom as the conscious narrator as well as one of the lead characters. The creation of atmosphere is strongly conveyed, as Michael Abubakar’s Tom directly addresses the audience, warmly drawing us into the narrative. Arnim Friess’s lighting design creates the feel of sultry summer nights out on the fire escape, while inside the electrically lit living area burns bright until the pivotal power-cut. There is a feel of desperation and hope of a better future that Elufowoju jr sets up and knocks down as the action unfolds, using Yvonne Gilbert’s selection of nostalgic jazz music to underline both the yearning for freedom as snatches of tunes pervade the night air but also to represent the weight of the past that shackles the characters to their less gilded fate.

Lesley Ewen’s Amanda Wingfield is a complex ball of anger and frustration with her children, while reliant on the appearance of a girlish supplication that is far from a real reflection of her personality. As she describes her heyday and the arrival of numerous “gentleman callers” Ewen flirts and wheedles, imprisoned in the happy memory of her ultimate self. She falls back on those characteristics when Jim comes for dinner in Act Two, fanning herself elaborately, giggling and trying to convey a picture of sophistication and poise where only desperation remains. But beneath the all-too cracked façade, Ewen’s Amanda is a tigress, dominating her beleaguered family and unleashing furious tirades that thunder through their tiny home.

She is a frustrating character, difficult to like, full of self-delusion about her beauty and her worth, whose personality is designed to grate. Yet, Ewen unveils the psychological state that has created the monster in front of us, and in doing so renders her a little more sympathetic. Amanda may bare her teeth – a gesture Ewen introduces to reveal both determination and a lifetime of painful disappointment – but she is fragile, abandoned by the husband she managed to catch and what small gift she once possessed (or thought she did) for controlling the world.

Abubakar’s Tom is our way into the story, a frustrated hard worker forced into the man of the house role through circumstances beyond his control. As our narrator, Abubakar’s warm and inviting tone immediately welcomes the audience but also does much to create the tone of the piece, those atmospheric interjections setting the pace and feel of 1930s St Louis as he takes control of the audience’s imagination to set the scene.

Within the story, Tom’s relationship with his family is layered and complex with Abubakar finding a credible duality in his dissatisfied love for his mother and sister, accepting his duty to provide for them while dreaming of a more fulfilling future. The furious encounters with Ewen’s Amanda are particularly well performed as permanent irritation suddenly erupts when the stifling experience of the Wingfield home becomes too much for them. Of all the characters Tom looks most to the future and his need to escape, to change his life, which Abubakar explores so subtly, takes Tom to the bars and cinemas of St Louis, and ultimately to a more callous place with only self-interest and regret.

Naima Swaleh as Laura is certainly as fragile and exposed as her beloved glass ornaments, and despite an early moment of rebellion in which Laura lies about the business course she attends, Swaleh suggests an ephemeral presence, as though the character is made almost transparent by the Amanda’s dominance and Tom’s distraction. Occasionally a little mannered – although arguably the role lends itself to such an interpretation – Swaleh is at her best in the final encounter with Jim, the intensity and pathos of which wins incredible sympathy for a girl with no prospects and only further to fall.

Jim’s arrival is a turning point in the play and finally dispels the illusions of the Wingfield family setting them all on a new path. In Charlie Maher’s performance this takes on extra layers as Jim, a white Irish-American, suddenly lends fresh perspective to Williams’s words. Amanda visible falters as he appears in the dining room and despite attempts to resurrect her plan the impossibility of a relationship with Laura in this time and place is clear.

But the contrast between Jim and the Wingfield’s experience is further elucidated in Maher’s performance. Jim – like Biff in Death of a Salesman – is a former High School hero whose subsequent life has never measured up, yet his first conversation with Tom is full of arrogance, bravado even salesmanship. When he accidentally leaves devastation in his wake, the audience knows that the white boy with every privilege and opportunity will also be fine, whereas the Wingfields who struggled for every ounce of respectability ultimately have no rights or history to support them – despite Amanda’s obsession with the past, it cannot save their future.

Elufowoju jr’s production is fascinating with the tense and vibrant second half in particular proving both gripping and illuminating. With a couple more performances before Wednesday’s official press night, there’s really little to do except plug deeper into the family connections in the first few scenes. Williams does a lot of the work for you in The Glass Menagerie creating a combustible environment and unhappy but somewhat compassionate characters about to hit the point of no return, but Elufowoju jr’s has reframed the play entirely, showing us that for the African American Wingfields clinging to what society they can the tyranny of one woman is disastrous.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Arcola Theatre until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

glass-menagerie

Absence and disappointment fill Tennessee Williams’s first big successful play The Glass Menagerie, but its appeal rests in the charm of its small family, one room set-up that continues to feel relevant and troubling today. Yet it’s been quite some time since a production has reached the West End despite a well-received version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come round fairly often, and we even had a rather flat production of In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, but the complexities of Williams’s 1944 play with its hyper-realised memory-format make it difficult to do well.

The 2013 American Repertory Theatre production of this play has finally made it to London, where it has already received stellar reviews to add to its Tony nominations from Broadway. And all of them are entirely deserved in a production that showcases the complexities of family relationships and pointedly reveals the inner-life of its characters. The one thing you’ll hear over and over again about this play is that it is Williams’s most autobiographical work but how much he has drawn from his own life and experiences in the several years it took to compose this play are debatable, but that is not all there is to say about this remarkable drama.

Set in the Wingfield’s small St Louis flat in an unremarkable tenant block, the narrator Tom lives with his mother and sister in genteel poverty. Tom works at the local shoe warehouse and dreams of freedom from the burden of providing for his family, a burden which takes him to ‘the movies’ every night to escape into the adventure of the silver screen. Matriarch Amanda has cared for her, now adult, children since her husband abandoned them many years before and dreams of receiving a “gentlemen caller” to marry her painfully shy and slightly disabled daughter Laura. Obsessed with her own past glories as a younger woman, Amanda nags and harries Tom until he finally agrees to bring home a friend from work, a night that changes everything.

Where Williams excels as a dramatist is his ability to show an audience what’s going on under the skin of his characters even when their surface demeanour is calm, poised and seemingly repressed. Particularly drawn to people who aspire to a type of gentility they lack or have since lost, Williams characters often burn with an interior passion for something or someone that can never be realised, or if it is will be a fleeting pleasure rather than the much needed change of life. We see this in Blanche who yearns for the respectability of marriage and stability but cannot fight her baser attractions to virile younger men, and we see it in Maggie who tries to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and wife but cannot contain her unrequited passion for her husband and his protection from the machinations of his family.

In The Glass Menagerie, and so beautifully realised in this production, the three primary characters struggle in exactly the same way, having to present one face to the world, to show acceptance and duty, while inside their fantasies of escape and freedom fight to emerge. The dramatic frame is set by Tom who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning from some future time, long after the events the play recounts. These are his memories and ones we are asked not to trust, as they are filled with illusion and his years of regret. Tom (which happens to be Williams’s real name) is then partly an unreliable narrator but also someone we come to view quite differently as events play out.

Initially he seems a steady, reliable young man, worn down by the drudgery of his work who seeks solace for his sensitive soul in writing poetry and going to the cinema. But actor Michael Esper slowly reveals the complexities under the surface, a sense of frustration with his overbearing mother and her constant interference, a rage against the world for forcing him into a life he didn’t want and, somewhat surprisingly, a secret drive to abandon them entirely. It is in the second act that an unexpected darkness emerges in Tom as he fights for his own survival, and in Esper’s performance you get clever hints that Tom is not all he seems, that ‘the movies’ may not be what we think and his interest in Jim the “gentleman caller” is something less wholesome than his family believes.

Similarly sister Laura, played by Kate O’Flynn is a delicate, broken creature, drummed into shyness and a sense of inferiority by the demands of her mother. Obsessed with caring for her collection of glass ornaments, represented here as only one small glass unicorn, Laura we learn has lived a life unfulfilled by work or love, clinging only to the constancy of her fragile collection. And while away from her mother we see her care for her brother’s welfare, it is with the arrival of Jim that O’Flynn allows Laura’s true character to burst into life, as she warms to the gentleness of his treatment, becoming talkative and momentarily happy in his presence. We see that despite her reticence she yearns for the kind of love her mother dreams of for her, something she has always convinced herself was not possible for someone like her. And the audience truly feels for her as the play reaches its conclusion.

In many ways, Amanda is the most complicated role of them all and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nominated performance is a masterclass in Williams’s pushy Southern women. Disguised as a protective instinct, to save her children from vice, Amanda is concerned that the world should see her as a decent, dignified woman. Like her children she has no current friends to speak of, but she revels in memories of her past that seem as real to her in Jones’s performance, as the present day. We never know really what happened with her husband and there are some hints that he was unsuitable, but she focuses on the many offers and admirers she once had, and the dreamlike reality of that earlier happier time. Amanda nags and berates her children, interferes in their business and talks excessively at people, so the audience understands Tom’s need to escape entirely. Yet, Jones still makes her sympathetic, affected by the absence of her husband and the disappointment of a life that promised so much and delivered so little.

Although a relatively small role Jim played by Brian J. Smith, the infamous “gentleman caller” is a sensitive young man who arrives at the Wingfield’s with no expectation of why he’s really there. Williams also gives him a similar sense of internal and external battle as he is drawn to Laura’s sadness and tries to gently nurture her confidence. Smith dominates the few scenes he’s in, as a breath of fresh air that blows through the Wingfield house bringing momentary hope and happiness to everyone inside, which serves to makes the conclusion only feel more emotive.

John Tiffany directs with a deep understanding of the layers in Williams’s play, while cleverly mixing a sense of encroaching reality with the ephemeral nature of memory. Natasha Katz’s lighting design adds to the dreamlike quality of the production and the slightly haunting nature of Tom’s few narrative moments. Bob Crowley’s layers of hexagonal set pitch the three sections slightly out of line with each other, which beautifully reflects how little the three protagonists understand each other, while the whole is cut into by a lightning bolt-shaped fire escape that pierces the Wingfield’s flat and underlines Tom’s concluding speech.

The flat is surrounded by a vast black lagoon which is occasionally lit like stars in moments of hope but seeks to demonstrate the endless emptiness that surrounds all of them, like an island forever cut-off from the outside world. While it works brilliantly as metaphor, it does lose the sense of crowding and claustrophobia that tenement-living induces and is also vital to the play’s subtext. There is little sense of being surrounded by other lives here which is a shame, and the National’s recent take on The Deep Blue Sea had a more suitable solution to the block housing problem.

Nonetheless, this is a masterfully charged production of Williams’s early play, and while the style takes a little while to get used to, it soon draws you into the inner-lives of its lonely protagonists. And while in one sense it is a tiny domestic drama that affects only the four characters we see, it has a universality that is quite affecting. Everyone has lost or never achieved something they wanted, whether it is love, recognition or freedom, and Williams’s creations represent something we can all recognise. The power of this play’s characters, and the American Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, is that all of them are fragile creatures, a glass menagerie that we watch shatter in the hands of the playwright.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April. Tickets start at £20 but do note ATG booking fees. Day seats are available from £15 at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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