Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Atri Banerjee
ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE
Like so many other productions delayed or impacted by the Pandemic, Atri Banerjee’s vision for The Glass Menagerie altered over the last two years. We will never know exactly what this production might have looked like in early 2020 but it is hard to imagine it being better than this current reimagining of the Tennessee Williams‘ poignant classic. Our personal experience of lockdowns in our homes lends itself perfectly to this claustrophobic image of a home constrained by unfulfilled desires. Like Williams, Atri Banerjee understands love in its many flawed manifestations and allows the intense emotional pain in the writing to be illuminated with the warm glow of empathy.
The claustrophobia of lockdown for so many mirrors Tom who is trapped at home with his Mother and Laura with his true nature stifled and all his hopes for the future in limbo. In contrast his deeply introverted sister is actually more content cloistered within the home than she ever could be in the outside world, as were so many introverts who actually thrived during lockdown. In this memory play, the Mother takes all her solace from the past as this faded Southern belle relives past glories when she graciously received gentlemen callers on her parents’ porch. The visitor Joe is the first caller of note and as such is both a breath of fresh air in this stale environment and inevitably the catalyst for radical change.
All four performances are uniformly excellent. Joshua James as Tom is weary and hollow eyed, bitter and despondent, trapped in a job that serves only to support his family but dreaming of escape and excitement. Frequent evenings spent in the cinema allude to a secret life, further hinted at when he gives his sister a rainbow scarf from his evening sojourns. James is utterly believable with his Southern drawl and dry whip smart retorts. He embodies the tortured young man equally capable of casual cruelty and genuine tenderness. Rhiannon Clements as Laura exudes the palpable discomfort of a young woman far more socially hindered by her neuro diversity than by her physical impairment. It is a thing of quiet magic to observe as she blossoms with the positive and genuine admiration from Joe. Eloka Ivo has little to actively do or say in the first Act yet this actor ensures he maintains an absorbing presence throughout. His performance illuminates the second Act like the glow of candles which Tom lights all around the stage. He has an energy and a physicality that separates him from the others and serves effectively drive the narrative. Geraldine Somerville is perfectly cast as Amanda, the relentless mother whose love can appear monstrous yet comes from the heart of a lioness seeking security for her cubs. Her performance is as brittle as the delicate glass in the Menagerie yet as a Mother she has a core of steel.
This is a gorgeous production where less is always more bar one brief dance scene with Laura and Joe that jars with the overall tempo and pacing of the play. The design by Susanna Vize is stripped back to basics where even the glass menagerie is subtly alluded to rather than centre stage. The simple wooden chairs, the candles and the evoked heavy scent of flowers evoke theatre and home as church like manifestations of weddings, baptisms and funerals. The multiple vases of pale flowers which overshadow Laura’s glass animals also serve to allude to the floral tokens received from all 17 of her Mothers gentleman callers. The heightened drama of the set is the huge illuminated sign saying ‘PARADISE’ which turns through the performance and echoes the church like feel as though a metaphor for Christ on the cross giving up his life for us…just as Tom is being expected to for his family. The staging is complemented by wonderful lighting from Lee Curran and a dreamy soundscape from Giles Thomas.
The Glass Menagerie is the 1944 play that was the breakout success for Tennessee Williams and it continues to be a classic that doesn’t date. The themes of family bonds, duty, responsibility and love are intrinsically bound up in the complexities of being different or not wishing to fit with normative values. Atri Banerjee directs this production with intelligence, compassion and perhaps his own personal experience of what love and duty may look like within a family unit. He certainly nails the pain and the passion of love that seeks to find its own way to flourish. Like Williams whose beloved sister is celebrated in Laura, Banerjee is celebrating difference as all the nicer and nothing to be ashamed off.