May 26, 2008

The Glass Menagerie @ The Royal Exchange

Saturday night saw my first visit to Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, which I hope to revisit next month for a new production of Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy. This visit was for the final night of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, a production which has been hugely acclaimed by the press. I'm not overly familiar with Williams, my only real experience being the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, so I was hugely looking forward to seeing a decent staging of his work, and luckily wasn't disappointed - Braham Murray's production lived up to the hype.

The Exchange itself was a wonderful space, a dynamic and exciting environment. Completely and unapologetically in the round, Simon Higlett's set created the flat in which all the action took place on a simple sloped square platform, furniture arranged in various corners to imply separate rooms. Towards the bottom of the slope, the floorboards became bleached and bare, reflected in the furniture - the dining room table was deep brown at one end and bleached into white at the other. Wear and decay encroached onto the space which they still tried to make a home. While functional, the staging also remained subtly suggestive. At the bleached end, shelving units sank into the ground, disappearing from view. Flowers from the garden encroached through broken floorboards at another side, and in one corner hung the spectacular glass menagerie, hundreds of tiny glass animals stretching up from a dresser right up into the lighting rig. The lack of walls meant that the photograph of the absent father was projected in enormous scale onto the floor, dominating the stage whenever he was mentioned. In another corner, a balcony overhung the stage, the terrace from which Tom Wingfield, the son of the family, narrated and addressed the neon sign of the distant club that hung tantalisingly out of reach.

Tom, played with a compelling nervous energy by Mark Arends, controlled the production as a fragment of his own memory, stage-managing the piece by clicking his fingers for lighting cues (and Johanna Town's spectacular lighting design deserves mention here, picking out rooms and locations on the set and creating beautiful effects such as the mirrorball lighting that accompanied the climactic waltz). His narration, slightly desperate in its pleas to us, excellently conveyed the pressure and panic he felt at being forced to work in a job he despised to support a family he wanted to escape from. Arends provided the energy that propelled the production, constantly disrupting and questioning, moving quickly in a world where everyone else moved slowly, and always reaching for the world beyond the confines of the stage.

Yet the stage was the whole world of this production, and it was dominated by Tom's mother Amanda, played to terrifying perfection by Brenda Blethyn. Blethyn captured the saccharine horror of Amanda, the Southern mother from hell. On the square stage, Amanda reigned supreme, organising and tidying, planning and plotting and never letting anyone get a word in. The scenes between her and Tom crackled with tension as she plucked the newspaper out of his hand, removed the typewriter page he was typing, fussed around him and gave him no space to stretch. Inevitably these encounters ended with Tom springing into life, bouncing up the stairs to go to 'the movies'.

Blethyn's performance towered over the production, dominating it in the way that Amanda herself dominated the lives of her family. Longing for a past long since gone, her every energy was devoted to creating the perfect life for herself and her family - a life that bore no resemblence to that her children wanted. Constantly dwelling on times past, and in the second act trying to actively relive them by donning her old dress, Amanda provided an inescapable drag that turned the flat into its own, self-contained world that had increasingly little relevance to the world outside, and it was this drag that Tom fought.

Tom's sister Laura, on the other hand, played with sad innocence by Emma Hamilton, was unable to even try to resist the effect of her mother, and in the first act was a crushed and terrified young woman. Although we heard of her wandering in the park, Hamilton's performance showed Laura as unable to move any further than the few square metres of the apartment. Allowing herself to be entirely constructed by her mother, and only finding escape in the moments she spent with her glass animals, Laura provided a constant reminder of the power of her mother to crush away individuality, the power that Tom fought.

The build-up over the first act, particularly through Amanda's constant quest for a 'gentleman caller' for Laura, led to the fascinating second act, where Andrew Langtree's Jim O'Connor was introduced into the home. Blethyn's performance, already excellent, cranked up a notch with the fulfilment of her hopes in Jim's arrival, becoming sickeningly false and manipulative as she manouvered the three youngsters. Yet the beauty came in Jim and Laura's long scene together, as the two talked and she was drawn out by his insights. Langtree balanced Jim's confidence and tenderness expertly, never letting the character become too nice but also never stretching his sickening confidence to an unbearable point. As the pair came to waltz, Laura's movements becoming gradually more fluid and graceful, the production reached a transcendent point, ruined at its climax by their breaking of Laura's favourite glass unicorn. Their subsequent kiss was a perfect moment, utterly still and quiet and one could see Laura finally finding her own confidence, only to have it crushed by Jim's awkward admission of his own engagement in a cruel moment of theatre- just as she had finally found her escape, it was taken away from her.

The play's climax found one final moment of power. As Tom and Amanda began yet another argument about the former's inability to bring home a suitable suitor, it seemed it would go on as normal, but suddenly Blethyn's voice switched and a sound hitherto unheard erupted from her, a scream of rage and disappointment that cut through all notions of fraudulence, a scream that showed she knew, deep down, that her days were over. In the face of this, as he flew out the door, Tom smashed a glass at her feet. That final act, the lights simultaneously cutting, effectively ended the play on a moment of destruction and violence. Tom's closing narration, almost in tears over the guilt at leaving his sister in that permanently disappointed state, left no doubt as to their fates - permanent guilt for him, perpetual lack of change for his sister and mother.

It's a brilliant play, and this production was beautiful and crushing, with four powerful performances. If only one complaint, it's that the accents occasionally wandered a bit, which distracted slightly, but it's an unimportant gripe in a production that was so compelling. 

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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