The Glass Menagerie
24/04/2007 - 05/05/2007
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Willem Wassenaar
Designed by Laura Nicholls
Lighting design by Natala Gwiazdzinski
Sound design by Pat McIntosh
ALMOST A BIRD THEATRE COLLECTIVE
In collaboration with Laura Nicholls Design
“You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?” – Tom
Back from its sell out and critically acclaimed seasons in Wellington , the award winning Almost A Bird Theatre Collective presents Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece The Glass Menagerie as a dark, haunting, fresh and moving experience.
Set in America ‘s Great Depression, protagonist Tom feels trapped by the duty he owes to his family – stuck in a dead end job, having to support his dependent, demanding single mother and his shy, crippled sister while at the same time wanting to be free to live his own life. The small Saint Louis apartment literally imprisons the past, present and future of the individual members of the Wingfield household. Can a gentleman caller set them free?
Kip Chapman AS TOM
Renee Sheridan AS AMANDA
Jess Robinson AS LAURA
Rowan Bettjeman AS JIM
Review by Richard Mays 26th Apr 2007
Striking liberties have been taken with this 20th century classic. On a stark white minimalist set, with floorboards at crazy-house angles, director Willem Wassenaar and his young cast have set about reinventing Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
Gone is any cloying sentimentality, naturalistically styled dialogue, overt ’30s period flavour, and most props – for instance, the menagerie pieces are represented by a fragment of glass, while other props are mimed. The style is a wonderful tribute to an audience’s imagination and intelligence.
The production opens with narrator Tom Wingfield played by Kip Chapman exploring this chamber of his mind to music and white noise. During the ongoing confrontations between Tom, his mother Amanda, sister Laura, and Jim the gentleman caller, the actors occasionally lose balance or slip on the steeply inclining stage. At other times they share, echo or parrot one another’s lines. Tom even intervenes to physically reposition his mother like in one of those Who’s Line Is It anyway? games.
Despite the tone in the first half being at times unnecessarily harsh and either missing or avoiding some of the obvious ironical humour, the second of this stylistic representation, is ideally pitched, imbuing the play with a resonance that is as provocative as it is evocative.
Chapman intelligently modulates the anger and frustrations of a young man haunted by "truth with the appearance of illusion". His perspectives are balanced by Rowan Bettjeman’s portrait of Jim as personable, outgoing and seemingly confident, though not at the expense of sensitivity.
As Laura, Jess Robinson has affectingly cultivated a carapace of fragile sensitivity, but is also required to play the mother, able to imitate Renee Sheridan’s mouthy, manipulating, brassy, bitchy, sensuous, but emotionally damaged former Southern belle.
Together, they make The Glass Menagerie an intense but exceptionally rewarding experience.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
Breath-taking up-take of a challenge
Review by Peter Hawes 26th Apr 2007
I was hoping the other reviewers of the Centrepoint production would have gotten their copy onto this file by now but the lazy slubberdegullions haven’t, so I have to plod through an exposition of the famous plot myself.
Set in down-at-heel 1930s St Louis, it’s essentially a deal between Tom and his mother Amanda – "You want outa this crummy hatbox apartment, you replace yerself." i.e. you find a rent-paying lover for your crippled sister.
So Tom invites fellow shoe warehouseman Jim over for dinner; his sister Laura’s first and last "gentleman caller": a species of human in whom the seepingly promiscuous Amanda had once specialized – having had, she tells us, not for the first time, seventeen in one day. Whether she invented them or serviced them is entirely up to you.
The play is of course stunningly autobiographical – Tennessee’s real name was Tom, he worked in a shoe warehouse, his sister was as brain-wrecked as Laura in the play, his mother was as crumblingly beautiful, predatory, vain and vainglorious as Amanda his stage mother. His father, of whom he was frightened, really had "a job with the phones and had fallen in love with long distance." The family lived in a similar closet, hemmed in by circumstance, hoping the father, represented in this production by a tellingly empty photo frame, would find occasion not to come home again.
As usual in his works, Tennessee sics fantasy onto reality or vice versa – and the short distance between them in his world is manifested by the fact his father actually had his ear bitten off in a poker room brawl. And whether his mother had to invent a form of elaborate Southern etiquette to disguise her randiness or if Williams imposed it upon her in fictional form for the same reason is unknown – but real or fantasy, one of them happened. The family sex-drive was exposed to humiliating excess when sister Rose, decorum corroded by dementia, bellowed her sexual desires down the corridors of the mental institution she was in.
The play takes place in the livingroom – an oxymoron in itself; there ain’t much living going on in there. Not even much moving because, like Chekhov and Garcia Lorca, ‘Ten’ gets the most drama out of his characters by making them sit very still.
So, here we are in the non-livingroom, not doing very much. But, as Tom says: "The signs are interior."
A great deal of Tennessee Williams’ own life was interior; his sexual appetites were enormous and illegal – read Brando Unzipped for an account of them, wow! I don’t know what you call a homosexual nymphomaniac – a hymphomaniac perhaps – but he was certainly one. If he was outed he was dead meat in his gayless day.
So, transporting the real into the imaginary was no big chore for Ten, he just put people and things in a better place. Himself, for example – ‘Tennessee’ was born in Mississippi. And the St Louis of Glass Menagerie and the New Orleans of Streetcar were actually the Missouri of his desperate youth.
Anyway, Tom wants more from life than lectures from his mother on how to masticate and 45 years in Shoedom. When Jim the gentleman leaves the apartment to meet "the girl he’s going steady with," thereby breaking Laura’s heart (in the original script there’s a stage instruction "A cracking sound is heard") Tom shoots through to write plays and poetry and "collect cities like dry leaves" at his feet.
Now he’s back, many years later to conclude the play he left to write and never did – this one.
So, enough already. Let’s talk about this production. The programme notes state the cast wanted "to work with Williams’ provocation of The Glass Menagerie as a memory play…"
Well, they do. Memory suggests a narrator, and there he is – our friend Tom/ Ten of course. Now leading with a narrator can only mean the play is to be presented in the first person, so we’re deeply into the subjective here. Ergo, the point of view in this play, no matter how many characters it contains, is going to come out of one head.
And never have I known a more breath-taking up-take of a challenge set down by a renowned playwright than this version of The Glass Menagerie. "Okay," says Tennessee, "this is all coming out of my goddam head and I’ll see it as I want and I’ll take you where I like." And the amazingly precocious members of the ALMOST A BIRD COLLECTIVE have said, "Okay, and we might just take you further than that – at your own invitation."
Tom Wingfield, played by Kip Chapman has the most wonderful hands. With them, in a luminous beginning to the play, he collects the sounds of time and compresses them into his ears, then lets them out again, then collects them again… Superb.
And you never thought of that Ten – we’re in the Almost A Bird world now.
And in it, the famous Williams symbols have been manipulated to a telling extreme. To get to the fire escape, symbol of escape, you have to climb a wall of wooden floor. Get it wrong and you’re arse over tip. Jim the gentleman nearly slips as he arrives to unrecognise Laura who has unrequitedly loved him since their days in High School. By play’s end however, when he has fully entered the world of the Wingfield livingroom by dancing with her and describing her imperceptible beauty, he can surmount that wall as easily as he could surmount Laura – or her mother.
Jim himself of course is a symbol of the real – and at about seven feet three inches tall he suddenly dwarfs the world of the livingroom making even Tom, tall until then, a more suitable height for the matchbox world of St Louis. The Wingfields, by Jim’s presence, are becoming candidates for the glass menagerie itself.
And the greatest symbol of all, the unicorn from the menagerie is broken by Tom himself, not, as Ten would have it, by the waltzing couple. He picks it up and biffs it on the floor. This is his show, he’s gonna leave and Jim’s gonna admit to another commitment and that’s gonna screw Laura’s life and that’s what this symbol is for and why I’m smashing its horn. So there.
The eeriest manifestation of Tom’s ownership of the play and the lives in it is the ability of the characters to voice the same words at the same time. It begins, startlingly, with Laura’s shrill, word-prefect recitation of her mother’s latest homily. While Laura herself does not possess the strength to effect change on anyone she has terrifying powers of schizo-ventriloquism, with which she can create personality-shifting points of view.
Then, later, gentleman Jim O’Conner the caller engages in a duet of ennui with the intrusive mother Amanda. Which puts the play back in Tom’s head as firmly as had his hands closing over his ears in the first moments.
It’s great stuff and a splendid new view of the writer’s mind: Being Tennessee Williams.
Amanda, by Renee Sheridan, is a tall, shrill Monica Lewinsky, dressed as a Kirkaldie’s cosmetic department expert of the thirties, in illegal red shoes. Laura is dressed and played so palely she blends into the white furniture – the highest quality of pale acting, because she emerged from the dressingroom later as a vibrantly striking young Jess Robinson.
Rowan Bettjeman’s Jim, the failed success, is heart-breakingly right for Laura – he plays that most evasive quality to a tee – nice. He would certainly have caught the eye of young Ten. Tom is sensational. May he be stuck in that wackily asymmetrical apartment for many seasons to come.
The accents were perfectly nailed down by all – as were the floors by set designer Laura Nicholls and the flaws by Willem Wassenaar, a director nearing that fine European word "formidable".
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer