“The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”
Tom, a blurred self-portrait of Tennessee Williams, introduces The Glass Menagerie with unusual precision and candour. And appropriately for a memory play, my encounter with John Tiffany’s luminous production was soaked in the past.
In 2010, I saw the Young Vic’s The Glass Menagerie about 15 times. Not because I’m a Joe Hill-Gibbins super fan (although I sort of am) but because I was working as a theatre usher, as a student. My memories of the play are seen through a cloud of ice cream-stuffed contentment (they were 60p each at staff rate) and through the special kind of sentimental familiarity that only repeat viewing can bring. It’s a luxury most people don’t get with theatre.
In 2017, I saw John Tiffany’s The Glass Menagerie. It was an experience filtered through memories: both of the Young Vic production, and of people I know who’d waxed lyrical about its Edinburgh run. And through the rare beauty of its production photos, which showed a living room transformed into a hexagonal island, floating in a lake of thick black water of River Styx-like density. Above it, a walk-up style metal staircase spiralled to the roof, like William Blake’s famous corkscrewing staircase to heaven. This is a production set in a transcendental space, not a drawing room. And at a time when debates are erupting about “an over-aestheticised European theatre”, it’s a reminder that there’s no clear battle line to be drawn between playwright and director. Like a prototypical ‘theatre maker’, Tennessee Williams has embedded a metaphor within his text, and left strong instructions for a complex system of gauzes and framing devices, which aim to highlight its symbolism. The genius of John Tiffany’s production is in the way he modifies these devices for a 21st century stage culture. American drama is full of plays-where-people-argue-in-living-rooms – he blows apart that tradition by keeping the sofa, but marooning it in starry space. This tiny family is its own little world, and Tom is the warped telescope through which we see it.
2010: Joe Hill-Gibbins makes great play with metaphor, too. And even if critics have, at various points, sourly classed him as a European-influenced purveyor of over-stylised theatre, his production was just as faithful to Tennessee Williams’ avowed aims for the text. His play makes Tom into a showman, presenting a grotesque, pathetic version of his own history onstage. His mother Amanda becomes a ridiculous harridan, a cracked Southern belle squeezed into a tiny dress that clearly doesn’t do up at the back. His sister Laura’s tentative relationship with her fabled gentlemen caller is a delicate, authentic spot of beauty in a place of artifice and deception.
What stands out, looking back at the reviews for the Young Vic’s The Glass Menagerie, is how unreasonably furious the reviewers seem that any directing happened at all. The prime tone of Mark Shenton’s review is weariness: “it seems to be another choice”, he remarks of the candlelit second act, as though it might equally well have been a theatre-wide powercut that contributed to the dimly lighted atmosphere. Michael Billington’s review is simultaneously fairer, and more grudging: “All this is exactly what Williams wanted: indeed he even envisaged a set of descriptive Brechtian captions before each scene. But it doesn’t mean that Williams was right.” And he concludes, sourly, that “The heart of Williams’s play is exactly caught; and for that I can forgive the production’s dutiful obeisance towards the gratuitous expressionist trappings.”
2017: Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production was all about that old trickster, memory. Ironically, John Tiffany has had much more favourable reviews, but also includes a lot more actual tricks. Most remarkably (but unmentioned by reviewers) Laura appears out of the sofa, then disappears out of it – the effect reminds me, more than anything, of Voldemort’s surprise apparitions in Tiffany’s other West End show, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. But the effect couldn’t be more different. It speaks of the trickiness of memory, yes, but also of its power, and the way love can pull people up out of a Potter-style Pensieve of swirling stories.
2010: This might be a conclusion clouded by the fact that I’m looking at it through a fog of memory. But I think Joe Hill-Gibbins’ Menagerie really was a “memory play” – full of distortions and forgettings. It made Tom into a showman, whisking his mother and sister from under red velvet drapes. The astonishingly beautiful score was played, in part, on the rims of glasses – their ringing sound a bit like the resounding, poignant blank you get when you try and fail to remember lost details from the past, or like the tinnitus that echoes in your ears once you’re a distance from an ear-shatteringly powerful speaker. Sinead Matthews’ voice came painfully from her throat, and her mother Amanda was a domineering phantom.
2017: Cherry Jones didn’t want to play a ridiculous, rarified Southern Belle. As she said in an interview last year, “I’d always thought of Amanda as a harridan. I’d auditioned for Laura about five times in my youth, but I was too big-boned to ever get the part. I’d always seen the play through young people’s eyes, but when John Tiffany forced me to sit down with it, I started to realise that here was a woman in desperate straits.” So what comes across in her performance is tenderness: she’s allowed to caress, not domineer over, her daughter. It’s a fine, stylish staging that highlights the history that forced her to control her children. She grew up rich, in the South, but matured in Depression-era St Louis, with none of the practical or financial experience to secure their future.
It might be Cherry Jones’s wonderful performance. But it was something more than that that made me feel her pain, more than that of her crippled daughter or her desperate-to-escape son. Seven years on, soaked in memories of my first encounter with The Glass Menagerie, I’ve escaped the clutches of Tom-the-showman and joined her, in her lemonade-soaked, starlight vision of the past.
The Glass Menagerie is on until 29th April 2017 at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Click here for more details.