Nominated for a string of Olivier Awards and guided by the sensitive direction of John Tiffany, this latest adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ memory play is a triumph in more ways than one. Set in 1930s America, on a stage saturated with images of reflection, The Glass Menagerie is a breeding ground of unfulfilled hopes and restless anxieties. We are introduced to the world of the play by its discontented narrator, Tom Wingfield (Michael Esper), a young man bound by inherited duty to his interfering mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) and crippled sister, Laura (Kate O’Flynn). Concerned that Laura’s prospects of finding a male suitor are inhibited by her ‘difference’ from other girls, Amanda makes it her aim to secure a gentleman caller. With the addition of this fourth character, however, the characters’ futile hopes of a happier future are laid bare. Caught between memories and broken dreams, Tiffany has ensured that this adaptation remains very much of the play’s period.
Tiffany, however, is not the only director to take on this play in recent months. Last year, I saw another adaptation at Nottingham Playhouse under the guidance of creative director Giles Croft. Although, ostensibly, the productions shared several key similarities – in costume, set design and loyalty to the period – a striking difference revealed itself in the depiction of Laura. Modelled on Williams’ own mentally ill sister, the scope for interpretation of her character is clear in the directors’ alternative approaches. Croft’s Laura (Amy Trigg) was wheelchair bound throughout the performance, exaggerating the physical implications of her identity as a ‘cripple’. Whilst the presentation of Laura’s disability was arguably a little heavy handed, it added to the play’s feeling of entrapment: not only imprisoned in its single setting, Laura is also confined to her chair. Kate O’Flynn in the more recent production, however, is allowed her moment of blissful escapism. Swept off her feet – quite literally – by Jim (Brian J. Smith) in an endearing puppy dog love scene, the audience temporarily forgets the limp which has haunted her since high school. Insecurities are banished as she is held in a lover’s embrace. And perhaps this is why Tiffany’s direction of this scene is so striking. He builds up our expectations and encourages us to temporarily forget the fears and anxieties which characterise this play. With the brutal revelation that Jim is promised to another, the reality of Laura’s bleak situation is impressed ever more deeply upon the audience. The decision to reduce Laura’s glass menagerie to a single lone unicorn in this production is yet another indication of the isolation which makes it impossible for the characters to see beyond their own private worlds.
Despite the vein of tragedy which runs throughout this play, the actors cleverly negotiate a number of comedic moments. On most occasions, this is expertly led by Cherry Jones, her perfect caricature of the faded southern belle (complete with trembling southern lilt) offsetting much of the tension on stage. When the family receive Laura’s gentleman caller, she makes a grandiose entrance, posturing and displaying her new threads for her on-stage audience. Dressed head to toe in ruffles, with baby blue silk clinching her waist and a tiny blue bow delicately wrapped around her wrist, Amanda’s visible attempts at reviving her youth are made all the more ludicrous by her comparison with Laura. Had she been holding a staff and sporting a bonnet, you would have been forgiven for believing Little Bo Peep had walked on stage. Yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate the value of Amanda’s character as simply comedic relief. Tom himself appears to learn this lesson when he cruelly imitates his mother’s wistful reminiscences, childishly mocking her ‘Blue Mountain Blue Mountain’. Silence descends upon the stage. The audience quickly abandons its laughter. Amanda stands stock still: the play’s garrulous entertainer shocked into silence, wounded by her son’s cruel taunts.
The stage itself appears to be suspended in space. Sounds of outside life are audible from the railings beyond the Wingfield home and the fire escape leads into the sky indefinitely, like some kind of stairway to heaven. Characters are constantly catching their own reflection; in the mirroring of movements and, more overtly, when Laura peers over the edge of the stage, beyond the restrictive parameters of her home, and is confronted by her watery reflection in a midnight pool. Nico Muhly’s nostalgic score and Natasha Katz’s cool blue lighting, which envelopes characters lost in recollection, serve to heighten this tension between reality and memory. In the closing scene, however, the stage is reduced to the light of a burning candle as Tom recites his final monologue. The characters withdraw to the corners of the stage and like some kind of contortionist creature, Laura squeezes her body into the crevice between the cushions of the sofa, escaping reality and returning to the comfortable darkness.