Oxford Playhouse, 20-24th April
The Glass Menagerie, currently at the Oxford Playhouse, is fantastic, beautiful, and absolutely worth your time. However, it’s also nearly sold out, so run and book your tickets now. I’ll wait… And reward you with 700 words of reasons why that was a good idea.
Done? On with the show.
Beautiful, overwhelming, intense; these are the words that you find yourself repeating when you try to describe the experience of seeing Polly Teale’s adaption of The Glass Menagerie. I was held rapt for 2 hours by the seeming effortlessness of her production.
TGM is an autobiographical work by Tennessee Williams. Drawn from his own experience of having a sister committed to a sanatorium by their Mother, the play is set in their tenement building, a poor approximation of a family home. Boundaries weaken frequently; every so often, Teale allows the set proper to fall away, as we head into the recesses of blurred fantasy and memory.
Said boundaries are further dismantled with nods from Williams himself; openly and unabashedly highlighted is the process of writing that drives the narrative proper. It’s cleverly done, and doesn’t feel labored in the slightest. Teale refers to it as all being part of her own ‘expressionist’ interpretation of the text; her success is in making that true without also demanding you work to appreciate the full impact of that.
The Wingfield family’s thirties apartment is not a happy place; neither is the inside of Williams’s head apparently. The family is made up of Tom, (effectively Williams himself), his sister, Laura, and his mother, Amanda. Laura has suffers from a lifelong disability, Amanda from a long ago divorce from which she has no plans to move on. Tom works in a shoe warehouse by day, the long hours broken up by sketching poetry in the bathroom cubicles. At night, he goes to the movies, comes home, late, and repeats. Incidentally, The Glass Menagerie of the title is a reference to the collection of souvenir decorative animals that Laura uses to escape reality, more so than is clearly good for her.
Descriptions of formalist choices and an outline of the narrative do not express what makes this such a success. TGM is, at least through Teale’s eyes, a rich, sweaty Southern fantasy. Thank the cast. Not just for their accents (but since you asked, perfect, in straddling that line between ‘authentic’ and ‘excessive’), but for their physicality. Amanda is a whirling, excitable, frantic image of a woman still learning how to deal with the real world again. Her doting on Tom, her sheltering of Laura, her tics and quirks and thoughts-out-loud, her penchant for the ‘good ole days’, her occasional instability – Imogen Stubbs gives an unmissable performance.
Three of the four characters are family; they’ve achieved an intimacy that means you’ll have no trouble believing it. No trouble, that is, until you find out that they managed all this with 5 weeks of rehearsal. Teale and the cast made vague references to rehearsals frequently involving exercises designed to drag them kicking like new-borns out of their comfort zone; a lot of screaming and raw emotion was involved, it was claimed. Do you hear that, directors of Oxford? Do not knock the Trust Circle until you have tried it. You’ll only have to look as far as Amanda ‘instructing’ Tom in drinking coffee, or the occasional diplomacy efforts by Laura on behalf of the bullheaded mother and son, for confirmation.
Polly Teale has conquered several challenges in bringing her particular vision to the stage, as well as doing so with such respect as to improve on Williams’s demandingly exact specifications for performance. She will take you by the hand, and walk you through the text, through the reality, through the memories, and through the fantasy, all of which intertwine before your eyes. The production is for everyone; a technical success for even the most hardened, jaded and cynical thesps such as my companion for the evening, and an example of what can be done with the form for novices like myself. This is Trinity. The one thing we all need right now is a bit of escapism to take the edge off of Oxford.