Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie at The Gate Theatre in Dublin
The Glass Menagerie
The Gate Theatre, 2019
Written by Tennessee Williams
Director: Tom Cairns
Cast: Marty Rea, Samantha Bond, Zara Devlin, Frank Blake
The Gate Theatre Dublin - 11th May 2019
It's surprising how well the plays of Tennessee Williams have endured, far more popular and regularly performed than Eugene O'Neill or even Arthur Miller. It's not even as if they are all that adaptable or renewable; the locations, the characters and attitudes all very much anchored in the American deep South during the mid-twentieth century, but in the case of The Glass Menagerie at least, even if you don't take it out of St Louis in the 1930s, it exists in another location that is universal and recognisable; the memory.
You could apply the same principal perhaps to the location of Williams's other plays, but none of them explicitly reveal their construction to the audience in quite such a direct manner. Tennessee Williams goes as far as creating a prologue for The Glass Menagerie, warning that what you are about to say isn't real and isn't necessarily accurate; it's a memory and memories can be fallible, adaptable, unreliable and sentimental.
It's partly to excuse what might seem like some authorial neatness and concision, for the manipulation of accuracy in order to appeal to the sentiments of the audience, but isn't that what all plays do to one extent or another? What they also do is draw from and adapt personal experience, and essentially that dramatic reality is what makes The Glass Menagerie feel real, realer than real, even if the lifestyles and attitudes don't quite match with today; with the American Depression, with "gentlemen callers", with "darkies" as servants.
All of these specific anachronisms are however just variations on difficulties, problems and attitudes that still persist today in different ways. On the other hand, it's not as if anyone is looking for social or political commentary or contemporary relevance in The Glass Menagerie. The play doesn't have any great statements to make on those fronts, unless you see the truth in its treatment of the roles played by men and women, in family, in the maintaining of appearances, reputations, in a sense of self-worth that are constant themes in Williams's works.
The Glass Menagerie exploits then sentiments that we've all had, wanting more out of life but feeling trapped, ground down by mundane work, weighted down by family ties and histories, fearing that life might pass us by without us ever experiencing something new and adventurous, but also fearful of what life has in store if we can't change. That's the central division within the play, between the men and women, each are trapped in their own ways and each have their own hopes and expectations and ways of dealing with it.
Having given some prior warning of having taken some liberties with reality for the sake of a deeper truth, the four characters in the play do appear to be something of an exaggeration or caricature of their roles. Tom, the narrator and to a large extent an autobiographical role for Williams himself, is constantly angry and cynical, getting into drunken rages and firing vicious barbs at his mother in his frustration with the direction his life has taken.
His mother puts on appearances, but pines for a past when she was the social butterfly in demand from gentleman callers. Her delusions don't permit her to see any other alternative for Tom's sister Laura, despite the young woman's physical disability and crippling shyness. Jim O'Connell on the other hand is an all-American boy, who still commands admiration, even if he hasn't quite lived up to the promise that life once seemed to have in store for him.
I'm more familiar with Tom Cairns for his work as an opera director and set designer, The Glass Menagerie his first time directing at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. His intention is to take Tom/Tennessee Williams at his word and make the play feel like a fragmented accumulation of memories, but that doesn't really come across in the production. There is a gauze curtain around the family dining room that gives a hazy appearance that sharpens into focus as it slowly rotates, and there is a good use of incredibly life-like projections that allow objects, images and references appear and dissolve, but otherwise the delivery is as fairly direct, present and hard-hitting as any conventional reading of the play.
In this respect, it's the acting performances that deliver the full impact, keeping it real, realer than real, "truth in the pleasant guise of illusion", without indulging the sentimental side of the work. Marty Rea as Tom and Samantha Bond as his mother Amanda represent the opposing side of the forces of the past and the present, illusion and reality, security and adventure, with plenty of venom and bite. Tom is more prone to angry outbursts, while Amanda is more cool and resolute, both expecting the world to conform to their view of what it should be. Zara Devlin's Laura and Frank Blake's 'Gentleman Caller' Jim have navigate that difficult balance of naivety facing up to the disappointments of reality without it slipping over into maudlin sentimentality, and both are superb.
There might not be anything new in Tom Cairns's production of The Glass Menagerie for The Gate in Dublin, and it might not be able to tap into those undercurrents of memory and theatricality that are exposed in Williams's writing, but the strength of the opposing forces in the play that make it a truly great work of theatre are all very much present and brought across extremely well here.