Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Glass Menagerie (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Characters haunted by their pasts. It's a common tool in all forms of drama, and in The Glass Menagerie it is placed front and centre by playwright Tennessee Williams, in what is to a great extent an autobiographical piece.

The play is often said to have five characters, one of them absent. Matriarch Amanda virtually lives in the past after being unceremoniously abandoned by her husband 16 years previously. Left alone to bring up her son and daughter in the difficult 1920s and 30s, Amanda yearns for her younger days when she had a line of "gentlemen callers" at the door, all courting her attentions. It must have been an exciting time in her youth, to have so much interest from and choice in men. The fact she chose her future husband, a man who turned out to be a huge disappointment to her, still haunts her, as she thinks back to the other men, the 'could-have-beens'.

Amanda craves this same blissful experience for her daughter Laura, but Laura is nothing like her mother. Laura is what was called in the parlance of the day, a cripple. She grew up with a brace on her leg and as an adult, walks with a limp. She is crushingly shy and awkward, shielded from the real world by her own insecurities and low self-esteem. She immerses herself in the imaginary world of her glass collection, a menagerie of small ornamental animals which she cares for every day, polishing and cleaning with overzealous devotion.

Holly McCarthy's stark set
Her brother Tom works at the local shoe factory and is the household's main bread winner. Tom is, to all intents and purposes, the playwright (Tennessee's real name was Thomas), a man who harbours anger toward his father for abandoning his family, but dreams of something bigger, better, more exciting, than manufacturing footwear. He is a poet, and wastes much of his spare time at work composing rather than grafting. Tom is also the lens through whom we see this "memory play". He is both commentator and participant, addressing the audience as well as taking part in the drama.

And then there's Tom's workmate Jim O'Connor, who accepts Tom's invitation to dinner with the Wingfield family. Unbeknownst to Jim, Amanda hopes he will be Laura's first, and perhaps only, "gentleman caller", manipulating a situation wherein the confident, aspirant Jim is left alone with Laura, essentially his polar opposite. Amanda hopes Jim will sweep Laura off her feet, and make a better life in marriage than she did. The fact Jim is Laura's high school crush does not make Laura's shyness any better!

It's that absentee husband/ father who is the unseen fifth character. In most productions of The Glass Menagerie, a portrait of Mr Wingfield hangs above proceedings, a silent but ever-present reminder of the reason why the family finds itself the way it is. Tom is angry, Laura is crushed, and Amanda is resentful. But because Theatr Pena's production style is minimalist, there is no portrait in Holly McCarthy's set, just an illuminated frame where we are to imagine his face to be. Although this choice is true to Theatr Pena's methods, I do think the complete absence of Mr Wingfield's portrait lessens the impact his place in these characters' lives has. Perhaps an occasional fading in and out of vision of a real portrait would have worked better, demonstrating both the man's presence in his family's memories, and absence from their lives.

McCarthy's set is stark yet effective, intended to represent the nature of fading memories, like white-framed photographs. It looks beautiful and manages to paint a picture of the Wingfields' house with the slightest of touches: a telephone, a settee, a record player, a dining table, and of course, Laura's glass menagerie. Kay Haynes complements the set skillfully with her senstive lighting, rarely bright, often subdued, bringing the audience's focus exactly where director Erica Eirian wants it.

Peter J Knight's music is subtle yet integral to the feeling of the play. It's interesting that Tennessee Williams himself was quite plain about how the music should be, that it should tell the audience what reactions it should provoke - exactly what modern-day drama composers say they shouldn't do. Telling the audience how they should feel is somewhat old-fashioned and frowned upon today, but the sometimes throbbing, sometimes maudlin score that underpins this production works well. I found it quite refreshing to be told what I should be feeling, because it only confirmed to me that the drama was telling me the same.

Eiry Thomas is a revelation as the gentle, fragile Laura. She is shy and withdrawn to a fault, even in the company of family, and Thomas brings this out beautifully in some subtle but well-observed body language and facial expressions which scream what Laura cannot bring herself to say. It's a delicate, sensitive and studied performance.

Eiry Thomas as Laura and
Gareth Pierce as Jim
The best scene of the entire play is that between Laura and Jim, left alone in the parlour by a manipulative Amanda. Thomas and Gareth Pierce are dynamite here, playing off one another beautifully with some wonderful, naturalistic interactions that prove the assertion at the top of the play that Jim is the most realistic of the characters. Pierce is confident and well-suited to this role, making Jim firmly ambitious, but never so much to be unlikeable. He's just a thoroughly decent chap, although his quest to boost Laura's self-confidence might go a little too far thanks to his own self-awareness. He is a heroic, yet very slightly flawed character, and Pierce gets that across so well.

Rhys Meredith gives Tom plenty of anger, but not as much heart as perhaps Williams would have preferred. After all, Tom is supposed to be an aspiring poet, with his head full of ideas and otherness, but this Tom seems a little too regular to come across as an aspirant creative. Meredith's scenes with Rosamund Shelley's Amanda are charged with frustration and anger, but there's not much evidence of the deep connection these two characters must have with one another underlying it all. On the surface, there's not much love lost between mother and son, but I think we know there must be more than that beneath.

Shelley is at her best in Act 2 when she welcomes Jim into the household for dinner and assaults him with a wall of pleasantries and reminiscences about her much-missed youth before her guest has barely said a word. It is obvious that her attempt to set up Laura and Jim is simply her trying to recreate her own past. Yes, she wants what's best for her daughter, but just as much she wants to witness those feelings of being wanted and desired all over again, by proxy if need be. Shelley is wonderful in these scenes where she wanders backwards and forwards through her memories, her breathless enthusiasm and gaiety bringing the character out to the fore. Before this, I felt I was only being told what Amanda felt, but with these later scenes you really get to see and feel her heartache and yearning. A performance which increases in stature as the play progresses, culminating in her explosive rejection of her son simply because her own web of intrigue has come unspun.

Theatr Pena's production of The Glass Menagerie is done in their own style and spirit. The minimalism, and particuarly the choice to have the absentee father absent in all ways, might rankle with some, but at least the company is being true to itself. Theatr Pena was originally set up to create opportunities for women in theatre. But while The Glass Menagerie has two fascinating and complex women at its heart, these characters are both shaped by men (Laura by Jim, Amanda by her husband). I'm not sure The Glass Menagerie would pass the Bechdel Test, but then, I very much doubt that was on Tennessee Williams' mind when he wrote it. I think his attentions were very much closer to home...

Anybody can put on a production of The Glass Menagerie, but this is Theatr Pena's spin on it, and it's a refreshing take with some well-crafted performances.

The stats
Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Erica Eirian
Cast: Rhys Meredith (Tom Wingfield); Rosamund Shelley (Amanda Wingfield); Eiry Thomas (Laura Wingfield); Gareth Pierce (Jim O'Connor)
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, February 23rd to 25th, 2016. Performance reviewed: February 23rd, 2016

The Glass Menagerie on Theatr Pena website (retrieved Feb 24 2016)
The Glass Menagerie on Theatr Clwyd website (retrieved Feb 24 2016)
Video: Gareth Pierce creates Jim O'Connor's pencil moustache (retrieved Feb 24 2016)

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