The Glass Menagerie @ Duke of York’s Theatre

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.

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Six months on…

Riding on the wave of post deadline euphoria, most third year university students have one thing in mind: alcohol, and lots of it. A string of trashy nights in packed clubs, with equally inebriated friends, is all that’s listed on the agenda for the next two months. The promise of real life, with all its responsibilities, is held at arm’s length. Six months on, and with my uni days swiftly becoming distant memories, I’ve learned a great deal taking those oh so important steps into my [insert unemployed/frightening/what the f*** am I going to do!?] adult existence. For those of you embarking on those very same steps, my following list of life experiences may reassure you that you are not alone out there in the big bad world. For those of you yet to graduate, I strongly urge you to buy yourself some time and submit that master’s application before it’s too late.

  1. The unpaid internship

We were all warned it would be tough; eager students lapping up the advice of industry professionals during a journalism talk. “There are 100 media graduates to every one entry-level media job”, lecturers from Trent reminded us, their eyes boring into our souls to see if we were cut out for the brutal world of journalism. Someone gulped.  Another person coughed awkwardly.

Scrolling through the pages of Gorkana and Mediargh can be pretty disheartening as a graduate. In almost every job description, you will be asked for at least two year’s paid experience with a commercial publication. And for those that don’t, you can bet that the pool of hungry recent graduates will be fighting over the remaining jobs like animals over a carcass. Sounds extreme? I wish I was exaggerating. For those of us who don’t have links on the inside, a famous celebrity relative or exceptional bribery skills, the common way in is the dreaded unpaid internship. With expenses sometimes covered by a compassionate employer, the unpaid internship is the deceptive tool used by companies to convince you they are accelerating your career. Meanwhile, you’re picking up skinny lattes, avocado toast and the ed-in-chief’s repaired iPhone before noon.

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  1. Pulling pints

Saving a small fortune for train fares and overpriced Costa lunches requires part-time work. Therefore, living in a historic town, known for its collection of pubs, my choice seemed obvious when I signed up for work with my local boozer. Five months of conversations with families enjoying a Sunday lunch, visitors from across the pond admiring the ‘quaint, old-fashioned beams’ (yes, the pub really was built in the 16th century), and regulars, who call in like clockwork at 8pm every Thursday, teaches you a lot about the diversity of human life. I now understand that there is a certain nobility in working as a barmaid, having spent countless hours providing a free counselling service for a number of customers: soothing broken hearts, chatting about job concerns and discussing the problems with our Conservative government. In spending more hours working than socialising, I have come to view the half-cut punter as a kind of friend.

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  1. Moving back in with the rents

Recently talking on the phone with a friend still at university, she asked about my plans for Friday night. A beat. Mind racing, I try and think of something other than the sad truth. “Umm, I might be going for a drink” I reply, heart thumping, mouth dry, all the while knowing my Friday night was unlikely to move beyond the sofa, watching a rom com with my two cats. A pause on the other end of the phone, a sigh: “Liv, you’re not going to sit and watch TV with the cats again are you?” Admitting my lie, I soon learned there was no point trying to disguise my new, prematurely middle aged existence. Returning home to a ghost town, with friends scattered around the globe and a bunch of 60 plus year old’s as my only evidence of new friendship can be a pretty tough burden to bear.

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  1. The dating pool

This brings me to the dating pool. That ever-shrinking, tiny, muddy puddle, which seemed like an oasis of hope while you were at university. I once wrote an article condemning apps like Tinder, believing them to be the antithesis of romance. I criticised their role in making all singletons walking, talking ‘swipers’, at risk of developing early arthritis from the movement. With romantic opportunities on the downturn, however, I decided to challenge my inner cynic and embraced the apps. I laboured over which profile pictures to use and consulted with my Tinder Management Team (aka other fellow singleton friends) about the best openers and where to draw the line on sexting. A couple of months in and I’m relieved to say I haven’t been catfished. The jury’s still out on this one.

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  1. Letting go

Relaxing in the Gili Islands, kayaking along Ha Long Bay and visiting the old tea plantations in Sri Lanka are some of the next big adventures on my list. Although I fully expect to come up against a number of challenges (sunburn is a definite and being scammed probable), I’m hoping to come back enlightened, cultured and maybe sporting a slight tan if I’m lucky.

Returning to Nottingham at the end of this week signals a brief homecoming to my favourite city in England. So many memories, from university balls and society events, to graduation with my best friends, were created here. This time, however, I am returning as a graduate and fully fledged adult. Well, perhaps the last part isn’t exactly true.  But I’m working on it.

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