Gore Vidal’s nickname for Tennessee Williams was Bird, because of the way his characters were always in flight from something, usually reality. This is nowhere more in evidence than in The Glass menagerie, his first work which is being staged at the Royal Exchange. It was a remarkable play at the time, coming from such a young writer, and remains so today.
Director Atri Banerjee has chosen an ultra sparse setting for the play – just four chairs and a huge neon sign displaying the word Paradise, a reference to the dance hall across the rod which represents freedom from family constraints.
Billed by Williams as a memory play, Banerjee has the actors move through a continual mist on the stage, clouds which fog up one’s own mind perhaps. The actors – a fine ensemble line-up – shuffle clockwise around the stage at first in what appears to be an evocation of the passing of time. It is unnerving at first to witness this soft shuffle where you expect a more realist delivery, but the quality of both writing and acting overcome any initial hesitations.
Gerladine Somerville gives a tour de force performance as Amanda Wingfield, the mother with Southern grace and no conception that her children’s avoidance of reality is a family trait inherited from her. She is the prototype for Blanche Du Bois, at one stage admonishing son Tom (Joshua James) for ‘manufacturing illusion’ while herself maintaining the illusion that daughter Laura (Rhiannon Clements) is the tender object of gentlemen callers.
Somerville invests a sharp wit and languor into the role and in recalling her days as a Southern belle with Jim O’Connor (Eloka Ivo), Laura’s one gentleman caller, her jittery outbursts and swooning pronouncements on the power of love lead her into thinking she is the date he has come to the house for rather than her daughter.
Banerjee takes a brave risk in the dance scene between Jim and Laura where the two mismatched beaus dance energetically along to Whitney Huston in a scene reminiscent of Flashdance. This reviewer wasn’t convinced, but wild applause from the audience showed Banerjee had pulled off the stunt.
It is easy to forget how autobiographical Williams’ play is: Laura the shoe-in for his sister Rose, the wandering shoe salesman his father, the time spent in a warehouse and being given the soubriquet Shakespeare, the playwright himself. What he achieves in the play is to lift his own experience of family misery into a deftly comic portrayal of the life struggles we all face.
Something of a slow burner in terms of pacing, the production son gathers speed and benefits from sympathetic and nuanced acting. Joshua James as the put-upon son Tom renders a claustrophobic performance torn between family loyalty and the desire to flee. He benefits from some great comic lines and ripostes to his mother.
Rhiannon Clements as the cosseted Laura gives a mesmerising and quietly expressive performance and portrays Laura’s deep fear and mistrust of the outside world. A lot is invested in the gentleman caller and Eloka Ivo does not disappoint: he is a subtle mix of swagger and sensitivity and there is genuine remorse in his voice when he has to tell Laura he is already spoken for.
While Banerjee has adopted a striking frame for the play, he has remained faithful to the script and to the spirit of Williams’ work and the production wins through on all counts.
The Glass Menagerie is at The Royal Exchange Theatre from 2 September to 8 October 2022.