Sunday 18 August 2019

'Glass Menagerie' shatters the soul

The Glass Menagerie

Gate Theatre, Dublin

Marty Rea and Samantha Bond in 'The Glass Menagerie'. Photo: Ste Murray
Marty Rea and Samantha Bond in 'The Glass Menagerie'. Photo: Ste Murray

Emer O'Kelly

The Gate offers a lesson in how to get a classic right, says Emer O'Kelly.

The thing to remember about the gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie is that he's not a gentleman - in neither the St Augustine definition of one who is unwilling to inflict pain on another human being, or that of good breeding and civilised behaviour.

Most of the men in Tennessee Williams's plays aren't gentlemen - any more than the women, for all their fluttering and languishing, are ladies. They have steely cores and the souls of sluts. They need them to survive southern "society" where the menfolks' club is liable to be the Ku Klux Klan. High society it's not; it's cheap, narrow, underbred, and mean-minded.

So in The Glass Menagerie, the genuinely fragile Laura Wingfield - plain, gauche, and at 24, on the shelf, and with the overwhelming disadvantage of a crippled leg - is destined to be destroyed. Destroyed, but left to live in the hell of her own imagination.

Her mother Amanda, living on the memory of smalltown social "triumphs" as a local belle, has been left to scrape a living selling magazine subscriptions when abandoned by her travelling salesman husband, while son Tom's good nature has effectively been turned sour (as was Williams's own) by having to work in a menial job while yearning to be a writer. He wishes Laura well, but he too is ashamed of her crippled leg. He is also aware of her mental fragility, but is too self-absorbed to protect her from what he knows will at best damage her frail self-esteem, and quite possibly destroy her.

So he succumbs to his mother's incessant nagging to produce a "gentleman caller" for dinner. And the caller, an idly irredeemable flirt, goes to his task with a will, despite being only a month away from his own wedding.

It's an extraordinarily subtle piece of work, far more gripping than Williams's more overtly sexual plays, as the language inhabits Tom Wingfield's older self recalling those events in the 1930s before he "escaped". Except, of course, that he didn't, any more than his creator did. Running from the devastation of his mother's and sister's hopelessly miserable lives as they head into the bottomless, steaming pit of a pretence-fuelled tragedy, Tom is followed by the heat of his guilt, to live in a world made unreal by the half-remembered darkness he left behind. It's a darkness Williams makes us infer, has stifled whatever creative spark he may once have hoped for.

Tom Cairns's new production for the Gate in Dublin weaves every nuance into a kind of gauzy atmosphere, half-lit, changing almost idly from image to image as though seen in a half-remembered waking nightmare in Tom's mind. It's a fascinating concept, utterly different from the sledgehammer tactics often employed to direct a Tennessee Williams play.

And he has what amounts to a dream cast, with Samantha Bond, a star name who lives up to her billing, repellently sad in her desperation as Amanda (one of the great English speaking women's roles of the 20th Century); and Marty Rea, as chameleon-like as always, rough-hewn, sulky, guilty, and finally broken on the wheel of his mother's pathos, as a mesmerising Tom.

Zara Devlin is a terrific Laura, rising emotionally to a pitch of near-normal girlish hope only to plunge wordlessly back into the emotional debris of her life, while Frank Blake is suitably heedless and good-natured as the visiting Jim O'Connor. Paul Keogan's driftingly clever lighting, Lorna Marie Mugan's costumes, and Sinead Diskin's sound complete a classic production of a classic play.

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