After their success with Belvoir’s Helpmann Award-winning, monumental production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America last year, director Eamon Flack and actor Luke Mullins have teamed up to tackle another great American play in another production that reaches deep into the text and the soul.
Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical memory play The Glass Menagerie is undoubtedly one of the greatest theatrical works of the 20th century, and is performed time and again. But it’s fiendishly difficult, given that the entire play is veiled in faded memories. How do you direct and perform something that’s at once a vivid dramatic and emotional experience, but nothing more than a lightly traced, delicate memory?
The play explores the forces that made Williams (Tom in the play, played by Luke Mullins in this production) abandon his mother (Amanda in the play) and shy, unwell sister (Laura in the play), who in his absence was the victim of a botched lobotomy. They’re a family experiencing tough financial and social times, and they pull together so closely in their tiny, run-down apartment that they’re eventually pushed apart.
Flack’s largely faithful staging uses video cameras surrounding the apartment, which relay black and white video footage of the performances to two large screens on either side of the stage. It’s a theatrical device that’s been used in Sydney a fair bit lately (Benedict Andrews used live broadcast in both The Maids for Sydney Theatre Company and Measure for Measure at Belvoir), but it’s executed perfectly here (Sean Bacon serves as video design consultant), creating a dual emotional experience — somehow what we see on stage is more romantic on film. Which is closer to the truth? The film is enhanced by title cards and Stefan Gregory’s atmospheric, mournful compositions.
Set designer Michael Hankin has created a starkly realistic 1930s two-room inner-city apartment, complete with a fire escape. Much of the action is filtered through a lace curtain that’s constantly drawn back and forth. But outside the apartment, the realism fades and theatrical elements — lighting, smoke machines, cameras, fans — are all exposed. It gives the clear impression of a Hollywood soundstage.
It’s both a novel idea for the play and one that speaks directly to its construction and themes — Tom recreates sections of his life, piecing together intimate moments into an artwork (in this production, a cinematic melodrama) where truth and illusion are constantly blurred. It’s as much a cathartic experience for Tom as it is for the audience, as he forages through his memories.
Flack also draws out the queer notes embedded in the text with clarity, and exposes just how deep the connections between Menagerie and Angels in America really run. On a superficial level, there are moments in Angels that almost reference Menagerie directly. In Angels, the long suffering Mormon wife Harper interrogates her gay, closeted husband Joe about where he’s actually going when he heads off for his long walks; in Menagerie, Amanda interrogates Tom as to where he goes every night when he tells her he’s going to the movies. Joe eventually admits he’s been in New York’s Central Park watching gay men have anonymous sex, but we never find out exactly where Tom has been. But on a deeper level, both works are about people on the fringes trying to claim their place in America as it launches forward into an unknown future that mightn’t be as bright as was promised.
Tom’s sense of isolation and his refusal and inability to conform to any identity the world may ascribe him is a driving force of the play, but the queer themes carry across to Flack’s treatment of Tom’s meek sister Laura (Rose Riley). Her crisis isn’t as clearly defined, but it mirrors Tom’s in many ways. She’s not crippled by her disability, but by her inability to live up to the expectations her mother has of her.
All four actors turn in brilliantly affecting performances, but it’s Mullins and Pamela Rabe who steal the show as the mother and son whose relationship teeters closer and closer to the edge of destruction.
Mullins keeps all of Tom’s internal conflict bubbling just below the surface as he’s torn between his love for his family and his need to live life on his own terms. Rabe delivers a masterclass in playing a loud, steamroller of a character with intelligence, detail and nuance. She exceeds all expectations as Amanda, desperately pushing her children into conventional lives that just won’t fit. It’s like she’s racing against some invisible clock to get her children’s lives together, whether it be counting down to the end of her own life, or the moment when Laura’s looks start to fade, or the moment when Tom has been irretrievably lost to a world Amanda fears. As she twirls about joyously in the party dress from her youth, it’s clear that she simply wants her children to experience the joy and security that she enjoyed for most of her life.
There are some light moments of comedy between Mullins and Rabe, but they all come from their characters’ truths and conflicting objectives. Rabe’s desperation often draws laughs, but becomes tragic in the end. Mullins makes it clear that Tom is concealing secrets, but that’s, wisely, never a source of humour.
Newcomer Rose Riley is the perfect Laura, only just managing to hold herself together, clinging to the safety of her home and family (with Flack’s direction, she physically clings to them over and over again). Her pain comes almost entirely from the disappointment she knows she’s causing her mother, even when things end badly with the “Gentleman Caller” Jim (Harry Greenwood), who she was once madly in love with. Some of Flack’s finest work in this production lies in the way he’s drawn the relationship between Laura and Tom. It’s one of mutual dependence and understanding — they have a tender, silent code of movement that plays out when Amanda is looking the other way. Tom’s final decision will clearly be devastating.
Jim is largely, as Tom states, a symbol of the long-awaited something the family is living for, and Harry Greenwood brings him to life with an ideal warmth. But a “Gentleman Caller” was never going to be enough to solve this family’s problems.
Like Laura and her glass unicorn, this production is a thing of rare, fragile and transparent beauty. It will undoubtedly linger in the memories of many who see it.