revew: Atri Banerjee – The Glass Menagerie
The Glass Menagerie/
by Tennessee Williams/
dir by Atri Banerjee/
design Rosanna Vize/
LX design Lee Curran/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
02 Sep – 08 Oct, 2022//
The Violin in the Wings
There’s nothing new in a play telling you it isn’t real. It wasn’t new when The Glass Menagerie premiered in 1944 and hell, it wasn’t new when Shakespeare wrote Henry V in 1599. Tom Wingfield is master of ceremonies. He would have us believe. He would have us believe he presents us ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion’. He would have us believe he is a character in the story as well as its narrator but he’s a liar. Or he’s a fool or he’s both.
This is a memory play? There’s a fiddle in the wings? Tom, you’re wrong, you clown. There’s no fiddle in the wings – where are the wings? We’re in a big steel O, Tom. Atri Banerjee’s direction turns every character into a narrator and strips Tom even more severely of his false power. There are hardly any props, there is barely any set. We are here to make-believe – this is a memory play? Well, we all remember what plates look like, don’t we? We know what a key is, surely. If Amanda, Tom, Laura, Jim say they’re there then the props are there, use your imagination. Of course we are not really in St. Louis, but we didn’t really show up expecting to find ourselves in St. Louis. We’re not deluded.
PARADISE in neon lights looms over the stage, rotating like the key of an immense clockwork toy. The Wingfield residence is a spilled-milk floor dotted with tiny glass animals. The players fret their way about and their closeness or their distance is the emotional furniture of the stage. On a circle, if you walk away too far, you end up coming back the other way. Clockwise and anticlockwise are relative terms, is the clock on the floor or the ceiling? The Glass Menagerie is a cold play and a hot play. Cold and hot like what if Tom is closeted and he’s not really going to the movies after all. Cold and hot like what if Jim and Laura share a passionate, sexually-charged dance but no, that’s not what really happened – but no, none of it really happened. None of it really happened because this is a play and we are pretending.
And so if it’s all pretend then the imaginary, passionate exchange between Laura and Jim is just as real as where the dialogue takes it after, isn’t it? And then if that’s the case then why not the imagined world where Jim isn’t already taken, where he proposes to Laura there and then and Laura is happy and Amanda is happy and Jim is happy and Tom can leave after all with no negative consequences. If everything we see tonight is a dream and a memory then every imagined outcome is just as real because none of them are real. And if they can dream, they aren’t stuck. – Cold and hot like being stuck in a dream.
Moths navigate by the moon. Which is why a neon light confuses them; the moon is supposed to be tens of thousands of miles away so when it fills their site they can’t escape, they have no idea how. The Glass Menagerie’s cast are dreamers, emotional islands who can only understand the world and others through their own goals. The rotating, glowing PARADISE is a fly-trap. Money is tight and getting tighter. The Wingfields are stuck and becoming more stuck, and they snap at each other wretched wretched and the audience laugh. It is only a story I tell myself, but I have noticed audiences are hungry for laughter lately. The Glass Menagerie is not the play I would recommend for merry escapism but the audience howl at Tom’s outbursts, at his catty put-downs of his panicked and desperate and poor mother. Tom’s clever, sure, but every failure to empathise with his mother and his sister is another half-dozen nails in the coffin-lid that is Tom’s resolve to escape.
This is a memory. Tom isn’t here, he’s somewhere else.We go somewhere when we believe in it. We go somewhere when we laugh. I don’t for a minute imagine Tom is as clever and quick-witted as he wants us to believe. Did Jim even really call him Shakespeare? The whole evening is Tom’s wishful esprit d’escalier. Needless to say, he has the last laugh.
Like Laura’s menagerie, the inhabitants of Tom’s story are stuck under glass, stuck in only chiming and reflecting bright, colourful lights which come from outside, never within. Jim is stuck fulfilling his personal myth of self-improvement; Amanda is stuck believing in her own exceptionalism, in telling stories of the lives she had and could have had; Laura is stuck between comfortable resignation and cruel hope. Tom, we are led to believe, is outside, flighty, designing our experience. Tennessee Williams, we are led to believe, is outside, an architect, a poet laying out the course of events. Atri Banerjee, we are led to believe, is outside, directing, steering the experience of the actors telling us this story, liaising with the design, mediating between the stage and the script. We, we are led to believe, are outside, an audience, watching from a distance. Tomorrow night, the story will be the same, and the night after that, and so on until the end of the production. Suspend your disbelief well enough and you might find yourself believing you’re watching a story which has nothing to do with you.
If this is a memory, if Tom really has fled and pursued the life he always wanted, why is he drawn back? He’s as stuck inside the dream as Jim, as Laura, as Amanda. There’s nothing to him but the contempt he has woven like a cocoon around him. Escaping means nothing because he’s a non-person, a poet with no interest in talking to others. Before going to see the play, one of my cynical friends asks me if the production will be ‘timely’, if it will be ‘an important comment on modern times.’ Its always a matter of what you go looking for, isn’t it? The inhabitants of The Glass Menagerie are fans of pop psychology. In that respect they feel very modern, very familiar. They use their theories to pin people down, to diagnose the problems in individuals rather than imagine there might be something larger and outside making them ill. That’s a dream and an imagining too.
I live in a country stuck in a dream. I am ungrateful and I am disrespectful and my thoughts and feelings are treasonous. The only queen I am invested in tonight is Tom Wingfield the fictional St. Louisan.* Tom, who is constantly in mourning for his departed father, an icon in individualism – a model for flight. Not worshipped, but envied. A mourning which isn’t. His father’s picture frame is empty – we can imagine what is inside it. We are trusted with that. Outside the theatre though, we cannot be trusted with imagination. Throughout Manchester city centre, today** as many available frames as practicable are filled with the goblin grin of a dead and dutiful monarch. In death, more power and presence because death has always been the thing on the throne. The mum is dead, long live the son. (This is the social background of the play.)
Like a monarchy, the Wingfield residence is a death-cult. Laura’s ego is a danger – it prevents her throwing herself into business school, it distracts her from the serious business of pursuing a husband and preservation of her family through growing the family. Ego is what drives Tom wild with boredom and what finally drives him to march out the door for the final time. Amanda can only keep her children dead so long, and her failure to squash their spirits is what finally undoes them all.
Atri Banerjee’s production was so good it killed the Queen. Sometimes, a play is so relevant it has a direct impact on reality. The Glass Menagerie’s depiction of the Wingfield residence’s mourning-spiral and their dangerous dreams slipped the coil of fantasy and becomes mortal. Now there are portraits everywhere – there are dreams everywhere – there is pop psychology everywhere. Now there are nails hammering down and there are no right things to say and a quiet life seems most hellish of all. The pageantry makes me want to tell strangers in the street, ‘I am glad, very happy the Queen died. I am spending these ten days celebrating.’ But that would only be a moment of fancy – the black and grey portraits of the departed icon will keep watching over us. It wouldn’t be very funny.
This is not a review, this is a memory review, only a story I tell myself, and there is a violin in the wings.
*‘Tonight’ being the night of Wed 07 September, before the Queen died, and also the night of the day you read this and every night since.
**Today being of course Wed 14 September as I write this and also every day forever and ever amen.