THE GLASS MENAGERIE
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 10th November, 2015
Headlong’s production of Tennessee Williams’s 1940s play curiously sheds light by keeping us in the dark. It’s very dimly lit – we are warned it will be by Tom (Tom Mothersdale) in his prologue. He tells us we are about to see a ‘memory play’ as if that’s a genre, and he narrates – Williams’s language has a languid poetry to it that shines through the gloom. At first I find the darkness problematic; it’s as though Tom’s memory involves deterioration of vision. The cast is almost lost in Fly Davis’s black box of a set. It’s like they’re in a basement during a blackout. And yet powerful performances emerge. Greta Scacchi dominates as overbearing mother, Amanda, with her flights of nostalgia and old-fashioned manners. Amanda enlists Tom to bring home a gentleman caller for his sister – her only hope is to marry her off. Scacchi is the engine that drives the performance, keeping us hooked in while the design and production choices keep us at a remove. Distortions of sound by Gareth Fry along with bursts of popular music of the time link the scenes with mood as much as Tom’s narration.
There are striking moments when the director’s choices work brilliantly and brutally: the blocking is stylised in contrast with the naturalistic delivery of the dialogue, providing visual metaphors (when you can see them!) and colouring Tom’s recollections of these events. It was obviously a dark time for him! The moment when they say grace before dinner is an example where this expressionistic staging illuminates the inner life of the characters.
Tom Mothersdale has a nice line in sarcasm – it’s never stated overtly but Tom’s secret life, what keeps him out until the wee small hours, is hinted at (a typical feature of Williams’s work). As club-footed Laura, Erin Doherty brings out the girl’s emotional immaturity – Laura is hampered by more than physical disability, she has social anxieties too; and as the gentleman caller Jim, Eric Kofi Abrefa is like a breath of fresh air in the claustrophobic setting. Odd though that Tom can recall in such detail scenes in which he doesn’t appear, but hey ho…
The second act packs the emotional punch. Director Ellen McDougall carries off the denouement with aplomb – her unconventional way of presenting Tennessee Williams pays off by the end. It may not be easy on the eye, peering into the murk, but there is a blinding flash of realisation and, literally, a shattering moment. Sometimes despite and sometimes because of the conceptual presentation, the emotional truth of the piece remains intact, even if the glass animals do not. Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and egos are as fragile and brittle as Laura’s vitreous zoo.