The Magic of Memory
by Tennessee Williams
directed by John Tiffany
Director John Tiffany is quickly gaining more widespread fame, thanks to his role in the long-anticipated Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Whilst that continues to stir up flurries of attention in London, his no less magical, 2013 production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie gets its European premiere up at the Edinburgh International Festival.
The action is set against a cavernous blackness at the back of the stage, with only a few choice pieces of furniture onstage and a magnificent, crooked fire escape which twists off into the sky, rather like Jack’s beanstalk. I’ve been told the floor is covered with a black liquid, however, it is unnoticeable from the stalls level. I could see half a crescent moon that emerges from the stage, surreally – as ethereal and precious as Laura’s collection of glass is to her – but it feels somewhat out of place here. Bob Crowley’s design sets realism on its edge with a few subtle yet uncanny touches, reminding us that the events that unfold onstage are not all they seem. They are memories; therefore things are slightly askew, some exaggerated and others omitted altogether.
The Glass Menagerie is centred on Tom Wingfield’s (Michael Esper) memories of his overbearing mother and excruciatingly shy, disabled sister, who he left behind to pursue a career as a writer. He introduces us to the world of the play, before settling into the action, pulling his sister Laura (Kate O’Flynn) through the sofa, conjuring her into existence with his memory. Paul Arditti’s gorgeous sound design and Steven Hoggett’s dreamy, dance-like movement sequences take the play further away from reality, adding to a magical sense of surreal.
Cherry Jones is the indisputable star of the show, as Tom’s mother, Mrs Wingfield, giving a full and rich performance. She shows how Mrs Wingfield’s intrusiveness comes not from insanity or nastiness, but out of anxiousness for her children to do well, from care and love for them both. Her well-intentioned concern becomes desperation, which becomes exasperation. It is a heartfelt and very human portrayal of a person who wants to help but keeps making it worse, which is incredibly moving.
Esper gives a good performance as Tom, although I would have liked a little more emotional depth. He comes off at times as quite callous and unfeeling, which disappoints in light of the more nuanced performances of Jones and O’Flynn. The longer scene between Laura and Jim (Seth Numrich) is truly magical – at once beautiful and heart-breaking. O’Flynn captures the fragility of Laura, her unbearable shyness and her painful self-awareness. She hardly dares to dream but when she does, she isn’t at all surprised when it is snuffed out.
Though the performances are precise and devastatingly relatable, the production values are more ephemeral, capturing the uncertain nature of memory. It’s a bit like a strange dream, which slowly but surely winds itself into a nightmare. This is a thoughtful and detailed production, which truly does Williams’ masterpiece justice.
photos | ©Johan Persson