You don’t often get to revisit a Broadway sensation some years after its first run and even less often do you find it richer, more intoxicatingly thrilling than the first encounter. But so it is with John Tiffany’s exquisite production of The Glass Menagerie. The London version is superior to the Broadway progenitor. Seeing it is to understand the unique power of the theatre – four superb actors revelling in words and creating characters that will stay with you forever. Incomparable.
Yes, 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.
From the very start of this John Tiffany helmed revival of The Glass Menagerie, now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre, the audience is conscious of truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. Tom, the narrator, is clearly separate from Tom, the unruly and itchy-footed son. Memories peppered with magic unravel as a richly detailed tale of domestic tragedy, unfulfilled yearning and brutal betrayal. I have slept through many turgid productions of this play: this production makes you thankful to be alive and anxious not to miss any nuance or detail.
Bob Crowley’s extraordinary and quite beautifully evocative set immediately establishes the tone: immersive captivation. The home of the central characters is split into two sections, each floating on water, so that reflections and mirror images are a constant, unifying presence. Seeing what is and what you think is there, and, at the same time, not seeing what is there.
A dizzying staircase of external fire escapes ascends to the heavens, at once cementing the location as Urban America (St Louis to be precise) and reflecting the heights the drama will ascend, the ever-present possibility of escape, and the notion of the collection of glass animals that effectively overshadows the life of one, at least, of the central characters.
In the prologue, Tom announces that there is a fifth character in the play – his absent, unseen father. In this production, there is a sixth: Natasha Katz’ phenomenally effective lighting. It illuminates not just the stage but also the souls of the characters, adding a wistful aura to everything, reinforcing the memory play aspect while also, deliberately, showing things in good, poor, inadequate or heightened effulgence as the moment requires. Shadows cast are important too, as is the power of a romantic moon.
Combined with Katz’ lighting, the sound design provided by Clive Goodwin, and Nico Muhly’s poignant, haunting and precisely right music, the Crowley vision for the Wingfield family is stunning: ghostly, pungent with dissatisfaction and deceit, and alive with possibility. Steven Hoggett’s ethereal movement gives corporeal form to the notion of memories flickering in and out of phase.
Into this precise and magical world enter four quite incredible performers, and within minutes, it is clear that Tiffany’s is one of the greatest realisations of a Williams play that anyone is likely to see in this century, and hard to believe that an earlier production could match it for detail, intensity, focus and innovation.
Tiffany’s lustrous illumination of the text, his clarity of story telling, and the deft and wondrous use of device, style and clever effects produces one of the most entertaining, important, and dynamically charged evenings one can ever expect to spend in a theatre. He is a masterful genius.
And no slouch when it comes to casting.
There are almost no words to adequately convey the complexity, the assured desperation, the frantically tenuous hold on reality, the dangerous dissent into past or imagined glory, the humour, and the brave, undignified horror that the glorious Cherry Jones brings to the role of Amanda, the mother of the two siblings who are differently crushed by her deluded ramblings. Every single thing Jones does is inspiring, perfectly done, and completely thought through.
Her wild appearance in her old tattered cotillion dress; her rapturous and unhinged recollections about jonquils; her sly attempts to induce the Gentleman Caller to get her daughter drunk; her shattering realisation of the hopeless future when said Gentleman Caller reveals he is to be married – all pitch perfect in every way.
Jones embodies the central plank of Tiffany’s approach – her portrayal of Amanda is the remembered version, it’s not remotely realistic, it’s fantastical, bizarre and overwhelming, just as Tom, the Narrator, would remember her. Because that is what suits him. And yet, despite that, there is truth in every aspect of what Jones does. It is an astonishing performance.
Michael Esper is eccentric and gruffly likeable as her son, Tom, who wants to escape the confines of the family tragedy and who, selfishly, eventually does just that, only to discover that his life will forever be haunted by the horror he has bestowed upon his crippled sister, Laura. Rightly, Esper’s Tom is difficult to love, but totally understandable.
There is a real difference between Esper’s narrator character and his Tom. The narrator is wry, assured, regretful. Tom is ragged, bad-tempered, lost: a kind of Tom Sawyer like version of the narrator – likeable but odd. Esper enlivens the narrator’s own illusions about himself.
His scenes with Jones are delicious in every way. They work together like a real mother and son – a relationship full of love, but riven with resentment and disrespect. They both use Laura, Tom’s sister, badly but not out of spite. Aspects of the family traits can be seen clearly in them all.
Unusually, on Broadway, where Zachary Quinto played Tom, there was no insinuation that Tom was gay, something many recent productions have insisted upon. Quinto’s Tom was just desperate to get out of the house, not the closet. It’s not so clear with Esper, who quite deliberately leaves the question open – the possibility is clear, but it might just be part of the illusion.
As the crippled Laura, the girl who escapes into her world of small glass animals because the pressures and demands of the real world are too great for her simplistic and shy conception of life, Kate O’Flynn is utterly compelling, delicately radiant. You genuinely cannot take your eyes off her even though, often, she is lost in the hollow and hopeless reflective quiet that defines her Laura.
She is fantastically fragile, but totally believable, and not desperate for sympathy. The wonder in her eyes when she surveys her glittering collection of animals is mesmerising; and she beautifully conveys the possibility of release/freedom in her wonderful scene with the Gentleman Caller, especially the moment immediately before her prized glass unicorn is broken, when she allows herself to let go with him, unrestrained, genuinely happy, as they dance.
The rapture and surrender in her eyes, her whole body, is miraculous to behold. Flynn lets the inner Laura bloom, slowly but completely, in a finely calibrated and wholly graceful performance. Her regression into numb isolation, once the truth is out, is profoundly affecting.
In perhaps the most difficult role, Brian J Smith is unrelentingly normal, and with pin-prick precision makes the most of every second as the Gentleman Caller, in a refreshingly honest and commonplace way. Yes, he is gorgeous; yes, he breaks Laura’s heart; but he is not vicious or deliberate – he is simply trapped by the machinations of mother and son.
Smith and Flynn share the scene of the evening, for despite all the perfection that both Jones and Esper bring to their roles, Tiffany’s production undeniably turns on the encounter between the shy Laura and the manly, desirable husband-in-waiting – and it is thrilling and tragic in every way. It is the best twenty minutes of acting seen on the London stage for quite some time.
It is also the only section of the play to be approached in a realistic way, so its contrapuntal effect with the more excessive and stylistic aspects of other scenes is electric, and quite, quite remarkable.
In London, Smith demonstrates how he has grown in the role, and finds extra energy from the wonderfully astute work from Flynn. He is abundantly charming, relaxing everyone around him. You watch him lose himself in the possibility that Laura offers, completely, and then come shuddering to a halt when he realises what he is doing. He is as lost in the dance with Laura as she is – it’s incredibly exciting, and painful – to watch these two extraordinary performers.
And when Jones brings her mercurial, mystical and misguided Amanda into the scene, the effect is staggeringly powerful: her face and eyes when Smith mentions his betrothed Betty comprise one of the most powerful and haunting images from the theatre I have ever experienced. Jones’ final dismissal of Esper’s Tom is a gasp of anger wrapped up in a lifetime of choked, painful accusations. Extraordinary.
Who knew Tennessee Williams could be so modern, so fresh, so pertinent, so profound, so disturbing, so magical? John Tiffany.
Sell limbs, organs, children, gold, whatever – but see this production if you value great dramatic theatrical work. It’s a once in a lifetime reimagining of a classic piece of theatrical writing.