“I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it”
The first of what will be three productions of The Glass Menagerie in a month for me is Samuel Hodges’ directorial debut for Southampton’s Nuffield, where he happens to be Artistic Director and CEO. And taking a detailed look at Tennessee Williams’ original script for his most affecting of memory plays, he’s come up with a strikingly original vision for his production, an overtly theatrical rumination on the nature of storytelling and its challenges, particularly when the narrative is so intimately linked to one’s own experiences, as in the strongly autobiographical elements here.
So Danny Lee Wynter’s Tom, our notable narrator, begins the play at a mixing desk in the middle of the auditorium from where he declares he has “tricks in his pocket” and to where he periodically returns to comment on and further conduct and control the telling of his story. At times he grabs a microphone and climbs to the lip of the stage, reciting his lines as his presence is mimed by the others in the scene, at times he’s fully present in the play. And later, he’s a ghostly figure hugging the wall of the theatre – watching on ashamed, appalled, agonised as his actions wreak unintended havoc on his beloved emotionally fragile sister.
And on the video screens (Joshua Pharo) that surround the stage in Ultz’s affectingly spare design concept, he places captions and images – again taken from the script – that elucidate and elaborate the action whether a tumble of blue roses, a glimpse of Amanda’s coquettish young womanhood, a cheeky slo-mo wink from charismatic absentee Mr Wingfield whose portrait dominates the living room. It’s almost like a scrapbook effect, Tom curating evidence from the past to support his version of the story, self-editing to convince himself that this is how it all happened.
Many of the show’s most powerful moments thus happen wordlessly. The vivid interplay between Tom and Laura as their mother preps Jim for his would-be seduction off-stage, that haunted anguish to the side as his sister’s dreams momentarily come true only to be quickly dashed by said misguided gentleman caller, the crucial development of the relationship between mother and daughter that comes in the final moments. And there’s hints too of the fallibility of memory in a sequence that stutters and restarts strikingly like a broken record.
Hodges’ experimental direction is perfectly complemented by the thoughtfulness of Ultz’s design, the perfect precision of Hansjörg Schmidt’s lighting and Tom Mills’ sound design with its haunting strains of music and pounding rain. And supported by performances of aching beauty from Pearl Chanda’s withdrawn Laura and Belinda Lang’s too-bright too-loud vivaciousness as the over-compensating Amanda, plus Wilf Scolding’s puppyish enthusiasm as Jim, this Glass Menagerie has set the bar high for my forthcoming visits to Headlong and Toneelgroep Amsterdam.