A few weeks ago I was given a great dvd called BROADWAY:THE GOLDEN AGE which is one man's attempt to interview as many actors, composers and directors from the Golden Age of Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s.
He is surprised when he asks his interviewees what was the single greatest performance they saw on stage expecting it to be either Marlon Brando, Ethel Merman or Mary Martin - no, more often than not they replied "Laurette Taylor in THE GLASS MENAGERIE".All of them remember vividly the naturalness she brought to the stage, Martin Landau indeed said she gave you the impression that someone had wandered in off the street through the stage door and was making up the lines as she went along.
The same cannot be said of Deborah Findlay in the Joe Hill-Gibbins' Young Vic production as the whole enterprise is pitched at a highly theatrical level but that only adds to the power of this revelatory production.THE GLASS MENAGERIE was Tennessee Williams' breakthrough hit in 1944 when it opened first in Chicago then on Broadway the following year. The highly autobiographical play transcends it's inspiration and hits a universal chord of longing and loss which has ensured it's enduring popularity down the years.
Tennessee's narrator and theatrical incarnation is Tom Wingfield, in his early twenties in the late 1930s and sharing the genteel poverty that his family have been reduced to following the disappearance of his father some years previously. He shares the apartment with his overbearing mother Amanda, forever harking back to her Antebellum youth, and his sister Laura, made chronically shy due to her self-consciousness at school from having a brace on her crippled leg.
Tom - as did Tennessee - works in a dead-end job in a shoe factory and longs to make a career as a writer but is burdened with the guilt of being his family's only means of support with his pay-cheque. When Amanda reveals she knows he has made overtures to the US Navy she pressures him to find a man for his sister so she will be provided for in the future. For once Tom complies with his mother's demands and invites a work colleague to dinner. The Gentleman Caller is Jim O'Connor who Tom vaguely knew in High School when Jim was the hero of the sports field but what he doesn't know is that Jim was the boy that Laura had an unrequited love for. Jim's visit will have a life-changing effect on the Wingfields....Jeremy Herbert's design takes over most of the open auditorium - a right-angled stage with metal walkways surrounding it with the dining table on a riser surrounded by the bric-a-brac of the house including Laura's beloved collection of glass figurines, her glass menagerie. The acts are ushered in by a curtain that stretches around the playing area and that can be raised above or below the stage level.
The stage is also dominated by the WWI photo of the absent Mr Wingfield, castigated at by Amanda but a potent symbol of escape to Tom. Although wide and empty the space also feels claustrophobic as soon as mother and son start their eternal bickering. It actually works remarkably well aided by James Farncombe's lighting.As I said, Joe Hill-Gibbins' has directed the play in a slightly larger-than-life way but he also shows remarkably well how there are no villains in the piece - although Tom's actions can seem heartless and while Amanda can seem to be smothering her children with her vaunted dreams for them they are not villains, just people who find themselves trapped by circumstances somewhere other than where they want to be.
Leo Bill as Tom was the one I felt least able to transcend the shoutiness of his character. He certainly plays the fact that Tom is on course for a nervous breakdown - Tennessee suffered a nervous collapse while working at the shoe factory - but only occasionally let the character have three dimensions. I did like the way he changed his style in his scenes with Jim, suggesting that maybe Laura wasn't the only one under his All-American spell at High School.Being Tennessee Williams the roles for the two actresses are the most defined and the production is graced with two memorable performances from Deborah Findlay as Amanda and Sinéad Matthews as Laura.
Sinéad was quite heartbreaking as the pathologically shy Laura, one truly can imagine how she would haunt the dreams of her brother. In the magnificent duologue between Laura and Jim, with only the smallest of calibrations she charted a course from mortified terror at being confronted with the boy of her dreams to her blossoming under the warmth of his kindness to all her hopes being as broken as her favorite figurine. I saw her play a similarly devastating role as Hedwig in Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK a few years back at the Donmar and she really is an actress of rare subtlety.Deborah Findlay has an absolute field day as Amanda, not for her the fluttery relic of the South but a woman resolutely hanging on to life in reduced circumstances. She certainly didn't attempt to play the character for sympathy and one can truly understand the exasperation of Tom at her relentlessness but she certainly came into her own in the second act, first with the beautiful speech where she tells Laura of her magical summer of Jonquils and meeting her future husband and then with her flirtatiously gracious welcoming of the all-important Gentleman Caller, her crushed hopes on hearing of Jim's status was beautifully pitched. After seeing Findlay play a couple of dowdy, starchy roles recently it was a joy to see her rip it up as Amanda.
I also liked Kyle Soller as Jim O'Connor. Along with Jim's breezy good humour he also suggested the inner life of the former Boy-Most-Likely-To whose life has not turned out so rosy and for all his attendance of night classes you know his life when married will turn out to be as equally mundane.As familiar as I am with the play I still got caught up in the emotional pull of the story and was quite an emotional wreck by the end - proof positive that the production worked.
The play stands as a testament to Tennessee and to his guilt over his older sister Rose who did not have the physical affliction of Laura but was mentally unstable for most of her life. The intention behind the play is fully realised when one knows that, unknown to Tennessee, his mother consented to Rose having a lobotomy which went wrong leaving her irretrievably brain-damaged.
Tennessee's guilt was that he had grown distant from her in the years leading up to this, in part due to Rose informing their mother of his homosexuality. He couldn't save her but the following year he wrote THE GLASS MENAGERIE and the success of this and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE a few years later ensured he had enough money to keep Rose in private nursing care for the rest of her life. She outlived him by 13 years.
In a year that has seen some excellent revivals, THE GLASS MENAGERIE is one of the very best. It's run at the Young Vic has been extended until January 15th - rush to see it!