glass stage

Pictures: Marc Brenner

The Glass Menagerie

Coventry Belgrade


There was a huge and naturally appreciative audience for Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie at the Belgrade's Main (B1) theatre, all the more impressive as this was not a Friday or Saturday, but midweek. And all the more striking as this was not a visiting production (the Belgrade doubles admittedly as a receiving house) but a co-production by the Belgrade itself.

This requires courage, and gradually the theatre has regained some of the distinction it achieved under the long leadership (18 years) of Scotsman Hamish Glen, who set out to reinvigorate Coventry's (in postwar terms historic) theatre - and achieved just that before moving on and, as he stated then, doffing his Artistic Director's hat.

Glen brought amazing, challenging repertoire to the city, and with The Glass Menagerie and other recent shows the present regime have achieved just that. The repertoire has taken a time to settle down. Perhaps it now has.

The play was one of Williams' earliest, in fact the earliest to be recognised. And with its almost unexpected transfer to Broadway, turned out a massive hit. There are just four characters, an almost bullying, some have said hysterical, mother, her fed-up son (his father has, maybe in exasperation, cleared off), his partially lame and effectively agoraphobic young sister, and a fourth, a generous-spirited visitor not averse to romance - indeed the mother hopes he may yet prove a match for her strange daughter.

The acting involved just the four, directed by Atri Banerjee, who has had connections with not just the National Theatre (RNT), but with the Royal Court and RSC as well. His handling of this play earned accolades at the (co-producing and celebrated) Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. No mean credentials. This was quite a bare production, in the sense of a mostly bare stage (Designer Rosanna Vize) and some fairly bare directing, not perhaps at fault, but a consequence in effect of the slender play itself.

Paradise was the name of the bar, club or meeting place 'across the road', according to Tom: Kasper Hilton-Hille, also serving a bit unexcitingly as narrator, certainly adequate and lucid but - not to blame - surely needing more invention via tighter, more imaginative direction. And it's a neon sign of Paradise that swings round endlessly above the stage, for me not detracting from what is going on, but perhaps a bit spurious.

The acting is played out not on the Belgrade stage floor, but on a circular contraption, quite common these days and an attractive idea (possibly for touring), though one kept expecting it to swing or do something (such a device can easily hold three, or even four, sets). It stayed resolutely still. The excellent idea, however, was to have it angled down to frontstage; which drew one into the minimal action far better than if it had been merely flat.,

Unlike overhead 'Paradise'. There were times when I found its slow, languid circling at least as interesting as what was going on onstage, or in the script. There were occasions when the arrangement of the three family members was rather constructively done, a kind of at-a-distance blocking. Others where it seemed dull and haphazard.

Glass couple

 Zacchaeus Kayode as Jim and Natalie Kimberling as daughter Laura

Managing a two or three-hander is not uncommon (Gielgud and Richardson duetting much of the time in David Storey's Home), nor four - Alfred Lynch and Nicol Williamson in Waiting for Godot with Jack MacGowran adding a tragic hangdog Lucky. Lots of Pinter, several others of Beckett. Rupert Everett and Colin Firth tolerating each other in Another Country.

Well, the acting here was generally not bad, and sometimes did hit the jackpot. Geraldine Somerville (who played the daughter, Laura, 35 years ago) captured the archetype of a bottled-up, husband-abandoned or -expelling, bossy bitch, setting the scene especially well early on. Her tightness, her restrictive, dated skirt and blouse, almost frightening when she hitched it up, definitely delivered the goods as the mother, Amanda Wingfield. She reminded me of a forceful if ill-fated character in a Janáček opera - perhaps the German actress Anja Silja in The Makropoulos Case.

That should mean she would flourish in a play by Ibsen (or Strindberg, or Chekhov). And I guess she almost certainly would, with a telling script in her hand. However, there was nothing here, sadly, for all the admiration both production and play have - should one say earned? - to come near any of those.

As the usually silent, scared, inward-turning daughter, Laura, I thought Natalie Kimberling was superb. Bullied (mainly by her mother but also at school and elsewhere, including maybe for her pretty modest physical disability, but doubtless also for her emotionally battered (or underdeveloped) state, she found relief in (not, say, her bedroom: here, she hadn't got one), but in collapsing - deliberately or desperately - on a central pillar (was that meant to suggest another room?), a form of escape, which at least served for that purpose. When dressed up by her mother to meet an expected stranger (suitor?), she looked like a lime green barbie doll. She could have been redressed. She wasn't. It restricted her immensely sympathy-invitimg acting.

One can only take so much family bickering - including here two major blow-ups between son and mother, one in each act - without some kind of variation. And it came, hurrah, right at the start of the second part, with the arrival of Zacchaeus Kayode as Jim. I though Kayode towered above the others, commendable though they were. Jim is a newcomer to their door, although an unforeseen connection with Laura emerges; but the swift evolution of his brief relationship - an innocent one - with Laura lifted the play to a new level.

Jim's brief stay, although he is on stage for most of the Act, is healing, empathetic, embracing - and they do - and wise. He might be her Counsellor. Certainly Kayode made of Jim a kind of caring angel, someone who listened, advised and - as best he could - understood. I thought he emerged as the most important person (or character) in the play. He was kind of healing for us, the audience, too. Someone you could pay attention to, learn from, respect and be deeply grateful to. For me, Kayode was a truly major actor, and made all the difference to the evening.

I cannot for the life of me imagine why The Glass Menagerie so wowed New York audiences and critics. Partly because it brought to their attention a new name in play writing (he was 33 when it first opened in Chicago; it was actually his eighth play). Maybe in March 1945 (it ran for a year) they even found it refreshing. Honest, maybe, like England's decade-later 'Kitchen Sink' drama. It's not a patch on Williams's later plays: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth.

Nor, even if fired by the example of Eugene O'Neill, does it remotely rival Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge), or perhaps some of Edward Albee. It badly needed some other characters (they need not even appear - perhaps speaking off). It cries out for a subplot, diversions, more of the unexpected (as Jim is). There are some good, a few very good, lines (those who find touches of poetry in it are most likely right). Some fine, or at least determined, acting; a so-so production, with so-so design. All credit for trying, but despite the rating, frankly not up to the mark.

Roderic Dunnett


The Glass Menagerie plays Malvern 26-30 March

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