Royal Exchange Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
September 2-October 8, 2022; 2 hrs 40 mins
Tennessee Williams’ wonderfully poetic and moving – and semi-autobiographical – The Glass Menagerie has been seen at the Royal Exchange before - more than once.
It’s the story of a family: deserted mum Amanda Wingfield and her children Laura and Tom. They’ve been socially mobile – downwards – and Amanda vainly seeks to mould her children from memories of her starry-eyed youth in the Old South, which simply don’t fit the hand-to-mouth urban present. Tom and Laura are each starry-eyed, too, in their own way: he longs to be a writer and get out of his dead-end job, she is desperately shy and wrapped up in her little collection of glass animals. Amanda longs for her daughter to receive a “gentleman caller”, and eventually Tom asks his workmate Jim to come round in hope of fulfilling something for each of them…
The production was set to run in 2020, but then came you-know-what. Now they have re-assembled the director, designer and cast as originally planned, but the production isn’t, we are told, what was originally planned. Covid has changed the world; it’s changed our perceptions and it’s changed the way people want to do theatre.
How? It’s the same four people speaking the same lines. No one has tried to change the text, which, being by Williams, has something of the character of holy writ anyway, and deservedly. In Atri Banerjee’s production, with design by Rosanna Vize, it’s still set in America somewhere, but costumes and furniture tell us the time-frame has shifted from mid-20th-century to something more recent (but still perhaps a generation ago: when Laura’s devotion to her “Victrola phonograph” is mentioned, we see her cuddling her Walkman, but the point is clear).
There are, however, three big staging ideas that dominate, each perhaps related to the intense prismatic focus created by the in-the-round Exchange set. Rarely before has Williams’ avowal that “I give you truth in the… disguise of illusion” been so precisely fulfilled.
The first is the massive neon-sign, “Paradise”, that revolves atop a black central pillar (the only block to any sight-lines) throughout. It could have been just an incidental (the Paradise is the dance hall supposedly just across the street from where the Wingfield family lives), but it’s an in-yer-face symbol of all that these particular human beings lack and long for.
The second is the spatial transformation of Laura’s “world of her own” (in many productions it would be a half-hidden, claustrophobic private space) to a different, surrounding sphere that she paces, outside the rest of the acting area but separated by an invisible barrier. Her glass animals are all around: in many ways she, the disturbed one, has her head screwed on better than the rest (a beautifully imagined realization by Rhiannon Clements).
The third is the directorial team’s surprise insertion of a dream dance sequence for Laura and Jim, like a turn from Strictly (which got its own astonished and delighted burst of applause from the audience): they re-run the preceding text after that and bring us back to the reality of their sad little smooch, but we really know what kind of paradise Laura – if only for a moment – has glimpsed.
There’s a lovely sense of things turning full circle when you realise that Geraldine Somerville was herself Laura in this theatre, making her professional debut, in 1989. She gives a brilliant portrayal of Amanda, with full-on sing-song Southern Belle accent and so appallingly self-centred that you feel sorry for her.
Joshua James (Tom and Narrator) is a young mother’s boy to the hilt, sensible, good-hearted but set on higher things if only he can break out, and Eloka Ivo gets Jim, the straight-up good guy, pretty well right without caricature. Or is he? Or are they? There are plenty of ambiguities in the script, and Banerjee’s happy to leave them hanging in the air.
It's Laura’s story in the end, as this production clearly tells us. Did it matter when her little glass unicorn actually lost its horn? No, because that is a symbol anyway. The important thing is that we’ve witnessed her “shattered rainbow” and, in a play that carefully distances audience from action, we glimpse her pain.
Tickets and information here