Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is ostensibly the story of two women and two men in 1940s America, but really it’s a story about people – all people. It’s the story of anyone who’s ever dreamed of something they couldn’t have, or felt trapped by their socio-economic/psychological situation, or been hugely exasperated by their mother. Much like his contemporary Arthur Miller, Williams has a way of making drama out of the everyday, and telling wonderful stories through depictions of ordinary life.
For a West End theatre, this is risky business. After the Young Vic’s 2015 sell-out A View From the Bridge, it feels like Miller will be trumping Williams in the public memory for a while to come. But this is show isn’t going for the instant shock factor. We watch a snapshot of a single mother and her two grown-up children as the past bears down upon the present, whipping up memories of lost hopes and hopeless ambitions. Two hours, many words and some tears later, the most poignant thing is precisely the play’s lack of action. These people end up almost exactly where we found them, except that now we know a little more about where they would all rather be.
It’s when Amanda (Cherry Jones) rustles into the room in her girlish white dress whilst her grown- up daughter Laura (Kate O Flynn) hovers full of anguish by her glass unicorn that the power dynamics in this play are truly felt. There are few onstage mother-daughter relationships more prickly, more affecting and more wryly depicted than that in the current production of The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre which follows its Tony Award nominated Broadway run and sell-out season at the Edinburgh International Festival. Under the direction of John Tiffany (director of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two, Let the Right One In, and Black Watch), Amanda and Laura don’t so much engage in a battle of wills – the sheer force of Amanda’s personality easily and inevitably overrides Laura’s attempts at deception or disobedience – but in a battle of realities.
Laura’s “glass menagerie” is an overt desire for a fantasy world, but Amanda’s relentless conversational charm which she turns on for the benefit of the young Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith) gradually reveals her even greater delusion: a yearning to re-live her debutant days as a society star surrounded by choices and admiration. Telling her daughter to make a wish, Laura’s answer – “but what shall I wish?” – reveals precisely how little freedom is left to both women.
Such an inability to face up to their daily reality is not left solely to the females of this production. The youthfully tempestuous son Tom (Michael Esper) returns from his mysterious outings only to loiter incessantly on the balcony. Forever on the perimeter of the house (and the stage – which beautifully isolates the characters by conjuring up a claustrophobic interior suspended in the sky) nothing could signal more clearly Tom’s desire to visit to “the cinema” forever and follow in the footsteps of the prominently missing father.
But it is not the relationship between the three family members which finally draws this play to its epic close. This isn’t a short piece, and in contrast to the increasingly popular pop-up 60 minute creations of fringe theatre, epic feels like the right word for The Glass Menagerie. But it is worth the wait. The driving second half between Laura and her Gentleman Caller, and its inevitably tragic conclusion, is what transforms this play into a masterpiece. Yes, the American accents might vary, and yes the abundance of contemporised productions on our stages might harden us to one set so uncompromisingly in the previous century; but to describe The Glass Menagerie as falling within an outdated structure of a young woman longing for an escape in the arms of a male saviour would make it sound unapologetically irrelevant and at worst misogynistic. It would also be missing the point. For the four people whose lives play out before us, the most looming reality is a sense of distance from their most heartfelt dreams. And that message might be one of the most resonant and timeless that any play could carry.
The Glass Menagerie is showing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29th April.
More information and tickets can be found here.