Reviews EdinburghNationalReviews Published 9 August 2016

Review: The Glass Menagerie at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

King's Theatre ⋄ 5th - 21st August 2016

This is a memory play: Rosemary Waugh reviews the Edinburgh International Festival revival of the American Repertory Theater’s The Glass Menagerie.

Rosemary Waugh
The Glass Menagerie at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh.

The Glass Menagerie at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh.

This is a memory play.

So I’d been looking forward to seeing this. Which probably came across in my incessant talking about it. Yet the real reason behind this excitement hadn’t occurred to me until about an hour before the performance we were attending started. Sitting in the pub and listening to another inarticulate ramble about my enthusiasm for the revival of the American Repertory Theater’s The Glass Menagerie, my husband said, “But why are you so excited about this?”

I was about to answer with the official spiel about the director John Tiffany and Cherry Jones as Amanda and the critical reception, when I realised it was fundamentally about none of these things. The Glass Menagerie was in fact one of the first Grown Up Plays in London I was taken to see. And this choice was likely based on my prior phase of obsessively reading the plays of Tennessee Williams whilst around AS-level age. My eagerness to see this production, which bordered on me being a walking-talking advert for it, was better explained as a montage of past productions I had by this point seen, coupled with a larger knowledge of the playwright’s works and, ultimately, an entirely irrational emotional tie to a specific piece of art.

Which is actually quite fitting, given that:

This is a memory play.

More than that, it is also – as I discovered in the following hours post-pub – entirely in keeping with this specific production of The Glass Menagerie. Part of my husband’s question was based around how, on the surface, this appears to be a traditional staging of a traditional play. Indeed, it seems significant that it was an American Repertory Theater production originally, because that is exactly what the play – 72 years after its premiere in Chicago – now is: part of the repertory and therefore part of our larger Anglo-American theatrical history.

However, to imagine that The Glass Menagerie sits at the opposite end of the traditional-experimental spectrum of the majority of productions on in Edinburgh this month would be inaccurate. The beauty and deftness of this fine production lies in the subtle ways it plays on being both a ‘memory play’ in the way Williams intended it to be, and a ‘memory play’ in the way it has now become by being a text repeatedly performed and how, essentially, it functions as a piece of theatre and what we are therefore all doing sitting in an auditorium still watching it. The production is itself infused with past productions – what we expect to see from the stage design and lighting – and with the knowledge of how others have spoken the same lines, yet these elements blur at the edges and slide gently into half-understood spaces.

In this sense, yes:

This is a memory play.

Bob Crowley’s set design includes a fire escape. Of course it does. It needs to for several of the key moments to be acted out and it needs to so the audience can know that this is a family living in a poor area, and to suggest a route to the outside world. Above all, it needs to, because we expect it to – it would not be The Glass Menagerie without the fire escape, any more that it could be without the crystalline unicorn or the record player.

But instead of sensibly snaking down the side of a building, Cowley’s fire escape shoots skywards. It flies in a nonsensical way upwards like a giant mechanical Christmas tree. It’s a canny reference, as Christmas is a time of year saturated with memories of how the same event has played out in the past, and also with the suffocations and love of family. To the right, the iron railings are also there, but they slope off-kilter. Quite literally, a slant has been put on this play. A slant that reappears in the over-sized shadows of the cast created by Natasha Katz’s lighting. These are shadows too big for the naturalised setting of a small flat. They are instead created in the same manner that The Glass Menagerie itself can cast longer shadows in the memories of an audience member than it rightly should and because, remember:

This is a memory play.

Those that are enslaved to their memories are always in trouble, whereas those that use the past to create new things are on the right track. Cherry Jones’s performance as Amanda is louder, more Southern, more guttural and – crucially – far more sympathetic than often depicted. Gone is the insensitive bully stifling her children and in its place is a terribly palpable sense of desperation at wanting to secure a future for her daughter. There is also a playfulness, she has more of heart in every sense and her reminiscences about gentlemen callers of the South contain a little wink, she adds a certain sensuality to it. Against the memories of Amanda portrayed as a bitter old lady, Jones makes her a more modern older woman who quite remembers what she saw in the men she danced with.

There is also a tenderness to the family unit commonly omitted. Watching this production you do not wonder why Tom (Michael Esper) stays so long when it’s a nasty little environment to be in. In between the hysteria there is such warmth – laughter in the evening air looking down on the dance hall and enveloping arms around a vulnerable little sister (Kate O’Flynn). These changes to the way the text is performed create the biggest shift of all. Instead of floating within the memory, the awful urgency of the women’s situation and what would happen to them after Tom sets sail rose up like the jagged lightening bolt of the fire escape. How would they survive? Against the direction of the memories, the extinguished candles left behind the disaster-ridden question I’d never before considered – What happened next?

Suddenly:

This is not a memory play.

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

Review: The Glass Menagerie at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh Show Info


Produced by American Repertory Theater

Directed by John Tiffany

Written by Tennessee Williams

Cast includes Michael Esper, Cherry Jones, Kate O'Flynn, Seth Numrich

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