Theatre in Wales

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Delicate and Haunting Revival of a Not-Quite-So-Classic

At Theatr Clwyd

The Glass Menagerie- Clwyd Theatr Cymru , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October 30, 2009
At Theatr Clwyd by The Glass Menagerie- Clwyd Theatr Cymru “The Glass Menagerie” last played in Aberystwyth in March 1997. It was a production with gimmickry of a kind that Theatr Clwyd Cymru simply does not do. At the time Tennessee Williams’ debut play gave the impression that it was receding towards the status of a fine miniature, in dimension not unlike the glass animals that his character Laura Wingfield tends with such love. As evidenced by the success this year of the Rachel Weisz revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” there is theatrical fire a-plenty in Williams, but this play does feel like the early work of a dramatist with a colossal promise.

It is partly a plot that is honed to its essentials. It is partly that the characters come with few shadings of ambiguity. It is partly because the narrator role of Tom tells the audience too much instead of letting the dramatic texture reveal itself. The play’s origins as a short story do show. The publicists for this production write that “dreams and reality collide with disastrous consequences.” Well, not quite. There is loss and sadness in Lisa Diveney’s finely judged performance, a brief moment maybe of hope extinguished, but her life will continue.

I missed Kate Wasserberg’s directorial debut in Wales but it was reviewed here with great enthusiasm. (See Amy Stackhouse on “A History of Falling Things” 13th May.) There is much subtlety in Kevin Heyes’ sound design.” Before the play opens hints of Samuel Barber are to be heard in Colin Towns’ music. Tunes drift into the St Louis apartment from the Paradise Dance Hall across the way. In a moment of dramatic tenderness a violin and piano plays “Ave Maria.”

I last saw Teresa Banham as the energised English language tutor to would-be British citizens in David Edgar’s bang-up-to-the-minute “Testing the Echo” (see reviews 18th June 2008). In that I am sure she was blonde and here, with her hair tightly tied back, her starchy expression and muted dress her Amanda Wingfield is testament to the magic art of the actor.

St Louis’ is called the gateway to the West but is also the city where the Midwest and South touch. Her voice blends the nasality of Illinois with the stretch of the Southern vowels. In her modulation of voice could be discerned echoes of the mid-career Katherine Hepburn. If deliberate it is a piece of acting cunning. Tennessee Williams’ mother figure was to mutate thirteen years later into the monster mother, Mrs Venable, of “Suddenly, Last Summer”, and that role was played by Katherine Hepburn in the memorable Mankiewicz film version.

She is here less the possible Gothic mother than one consumed by the loss of her own man and wishing for the best for her own children. When she says she wishes for them only “happiness and good fortune” we believe her. Overall, the directorial approach has opted for the humane over the histrionic. Hywel John’s Tom is consumed with frustration at his warehouse job but he does not descend to rage. There is a disadvantage here in the casting. Tom shares the same name, writing aspiration, and employment in a shoe factory in the same city as his creator. Whereas Williams was five foot six Hywel John is by any standard a good-looking six foot something. Sam Massey’s Jim O’Connor holds his long scene with a mixture of sympathy, superiority, half-learning, and is gust of fresh air in the claustrophobic life of the Wingfields.

There is fine writing threaded throughout the play. Tom, in escape, ends hauntingly with “Blow out your candles, Laura - and so good-bye." He has a marvellous monologue earlier on Jim’s high school days and his fall from grace to the status of warehouse shipping clerk. Teresa Banham has Amanda’s desperate, isolated telephone calls for magazine re-subscriptions and her piece on jonquils, now a staple of Southern fiction. But before the action has even begun Tom’s “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” does sound self-conscious now.

“The Glass Menagerie” makes an illuminating contrast with Theatr Clwyd Cymru’s “Pygmalion.” It would never be expected but Shaw effervesces with historical interest, linguistic vigour and psychological acuity. The Williams' play, sixty-five years old, is intriguing, episodically moving but has aged. In fact he said it himself in a “Time” interview “the future things will be harsher.” Harsher, tougher and more durable too.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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