January 31, 2011

The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic

2 stars

Glass Menagerie

I find it fascinating that Tennessee Williams’s reaction to one of the most traumatic events of his life – his beloved sister undergoing a lobotomy – was to write only days later one of his most reflective, poised and consciously theatrical plays. Tom Wingfield, the central character often allied with Williams himself, introduces the piece as a ‘memory’ play, thereby excusing any exaggeration, untruths, omissions or leaps in time. What we then see enacted is a sequence of past events from Tom’s perspective, as he reflects on his guilt at abandoning his ‘crippled’ sister, Laura, to join the army.

What I consider to be the play’s true stroke of genius is that the central symbol of the play (a glass unicorn, Laura’s favourite item of her precious menagerie and a symbol of Laura herself) comes to an ambiguous end. Does the fact that his horn accidentally gets broken off mean that Laura is liberated from the mental constraints of her physical disability? Or does it mean that, through losing the horn, Laura has lost the very thing that made her unique and special? At the end of the play, Laura’s future is thus uncertain, and we are left simultaneously wanting to weep and to cheer.

With exceptions in some of the acting and several powerful moments, I was overall rather disappointed with Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production, currently showing at the Young Vic. Leo Bill plays Tom Wingfield as if he were a heroin addict suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. He lurches about the stage, shaking and shouting in fury, the noise of his stamping a big distraction. The poisonous power of some of Tom’s most cutting lines (he calls his mother “a babbling old witch”, really cutting the jugular) is obscured by a general tumult of shouting and Leo Bill even has adopted the clichéd habit of rotating his wrists in an effort to appear ‘disturbed’. There is no denying that Tom’s mother Amanda annoys the hell out of him. But she is his mother and, therefore, he doesn’t hate her. In a moment of particular tenderness when Amanda joins Tom on the terrace to wish on the moon, Leo Bill shoots daggers at Amanda and stiffens up completely when she hugs him. If it’s so bad, he would have left home already. There is something holding Tom back though and it’s firstly a love and loyalty to his sister, but it’s secondly – and not insignificantly – a concern and care for his stifling mother.

Leo Bill makes Tom’s experience in the Wingfield household seem more like a temporary Big Brother one – an environment into which he’s been parachuted – and what doesn’t come across is how mundane his existence there is. Tom has never left home in twenty years. Amanda’s nagging is annoying, but it’s normal, and Tom needs to be in a place where he bristles at these things, but isn’t apoplectic.

If you haven’t already got earache from Bill’s general bearing, then you will be helped along by Deborah Findlay’s incessant barking as Amanda. In many respects, it’s a fine performance from Findlay who captures Amanda’s fundamental warmth and good nature underlying the chatter and hysteria. Her smile is a beaming example of Southern charm and her intermittent bursts of girlish laughter are infectious. Yet Findlay (suffering from a hoarse throat during our performance) pumps out her words as if she’s on a football terrace – and Amanda has a lot of words. What’s missing is the singsong elegance that should kick in when her jonquil-tinted past is recounted – a lightness that makes her allergic to all things modern. After all, her one trip out in the play she returns from in tears.

Sinead Matthews makes for a beautiful Laura with a sweetness that is never too sickly and a remarkable inner strength. Matthews’s understanding of her character is superior, and her gentle support of, and sympathetic compliance with, her mother really comes across. ‘Let her tell it’, she chides Tom, knowing that to recall her past is essentially what makes her mother happy. The sequence in which Amanda forces Laura to answer the door to the Gentleman Caller is particularly poignant as we see Laura’s desperate and pathological resistance mount to an unbearable level. But even Matthews was having problems with her voice on the night we were in, meaning that many of her lines came out as an unexpected squeak, much like a choir boy whose voice keeps breaking. Kyle Soller as Jim, the Gentleman Caller and old high school crush of Laura’s, gives a strong performance, buoyant with a lingering American school boy arrogance, and his scene with Laura, as he coaxes her to him as you would do a timid bird with crumbs in your hand, is moving.

The whole concept is a great use of space and the Young Vic auditiorium – with its slightly dingy interior and vast space – provides the perfect setting for a play like this which presents a diseased America, masked only by jazz, dancing and sex. The levels of the stage are effectively employed with tiered fire escapes and a dramatic portrait of a handsome and beaming Father Wingfield looming ominously over the action. Simon Allen and Eliza McCarthy provide an exquisite musical score to the action on the piano and glass bells. In truth, I think these two musicians, working so intimately together, give the most sensitive performances of the night.

But, sadly, director Joe Hill-Gibbons has missed the ‘glass’ aspect of Williams’s play, one which the playwright describes as a ‘quiet’ piece. We, the audience, should be reluctant to breathe or laugh, should we shatter the menagerie of characters on stage. And in this context should come a few moments of razor-sharp pain when a character causes another one to break (eg. when Amanda accuses Tom of being selfish, Tom calls Amanda a witch, and Jim tells Laura that he is engaged). I don’t deny that this is a difficult play to put across and it’s important that directors and actors should be encouraged to constantly reinterpret it. But I feel this director has done away with the ethereal beauty of the play and replaced it with a loud, dysfunctional, and far less nuanced, American family, thrashing out their problems.

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