Reviewed by James Karas
John Tiffany directs a disappointing production of The Glass Menagerie for the American Repertory Theater at The Duke of York’s Theatre in London. This production premiered in the United States in 2013 and has wound its way from Broadway to the Edinburgh Festival before its current showing in the West End.
In the opening scene, Tom (Michael Esper) tells us that this is a memory play and that he is not a magician but does have a few tricks up his sleeve. Tiffany seems to disagree with Tom and makes him a magician or at least lets him show us a few of his tricks. Tiffany makes sure that the play is not realistic and he gives us that message starting with the minimalist stage design. The set consists of a table and a sofa with only one glass figurine (the unicorn) to represent Laura’s (Kate O’Flynn) menagerie. There is also a gramophone which the play calls for.
Michael Esper and Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie. Photo: Johan Persson
The two striking design features are a fire escape that rises from the floor up into the ceiling of the stage and a pool of reflecting water in front of the playing area. Lights fill the pool and represent Laura’s menagerie when she is talking about it.
When Tom goes from his opening remarks on the fire escape he seems to stumble as he falls into the “reality” of the family apartment. Some of the action is mimed during the two dinners that take place during the play. Reality and unreality meet.
There are several magic tricks including one by The Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith). When he asks Laura to dance and she hesitates he tells he that her dancing card must be full. He reaches behind her ear and produces a card.
Reflecting pool, grand fire escape, magic tricks, mime – these are the elements that Tiffany brings to the play and they may work to some extent to give the production a distinctive and original approach. For me they did very little.
When Tom addresses the audience, he is a disappointed man looking back at the most momentous decision in his life. He abandons his crushed, invalid sister and goes off to join the merchant navy. I think he should speak in a type of reverie full of regret and guilt. Instead Tiffany has Michael Esper almost yell his lines. In the small Duke of York’s Theatre we could have heard him whisper. Esper almost consistently overdoes it and what we hear is his loud voice instead of his despair.
The apparently self-assured Gentleman Caller who takes public speaking lessons to boost his confidence but has been a miserable failure since his high-school glory days is a bit better but again Tiffany cannot resist adding more physicality to his performance than is necessary.
Kate O'Flynn and Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie. Photo: Johan Persson
Kate O’Flynn gains our sympathy as the pathetic Laura who is crushed by her deformed foot and her domineering and delusional mother.
In Amanda Wingfield (Cherry Jones), Williams created an unforgettable character. She is frustrating and infuriating to the nth degree to the audience let alone to her son and daughter. She lives in an imaginary past of life on a plantation, with wealth, servants, gentlemen callers and class. She is probably imagining all of it but she tortures her children by constantly telling them of her glorious past. She wants Tom to be a success and Laura to have gentlemen callers even if the electricity is shut off for non-payment.
Jones glories in the role as she talks non-stop at times and puts on a gown that she wore decades ago in order to capture the good old days when The Gentlemen Caller, a warehouse worker, visits without knowing the real purpose of the invitation. A bravura performance.
Tiffany wants to put his stamp on the play and eschews the more orthodox productions that follow Williams’ stage directions. That is understandable and indeed laudatory. But the bolder the vision, the riskier it is to bring it off. Tiffany simply does not bring it off as satisfactorily as I would have preferred. Nevertheless, the end of the play with the crushing of Laura’s world is simply shattering.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams continues until April 29, 2017 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 45 St. Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG. The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann