Blue roses and unicorns: Belvoir’s The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams described The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play” – a play based on memory as much as one which unfolds from and like one. Its world is a private one, where “desire clashes with obdurate reality, [and] where loss supplants hope.” It is a play borne out of sadness and perhaps regret, a play about what might have been, what could have been, and it is in many respects a quiet play, Williams’ “first… and perhaps [his] last.” But out of this quietness, this inwardness, comes a desperate cry for help, for compassion and understanding, “so long as we are there to listen.” Belvoir’s The Glass Menagerie, directed by Eamon Flack, plays with the illusion of memory and truth, indeed with the illusion of illusion, and it is a play – a production – that is very much haunted. Haunted, autobiographically and in performance, by the character of Laura. Based on the plight of Williams’ sister Rose – whose fate had been decided by institutionalised care following a lobotomy – the play, and Laura, blossoms where Rose can and could not, and even though it is a heartbreaking portrait of a brother trying to give the outside world to the sister he loves even if she isn’t able to leave her own private world, it is a play ultimately about love, relationships and dreams.

I am a little bit in love with Eamon Flack’s work at Belvoir over the past three years. From his gorgeous and ebullient As You Like It, to the bittersweet aliveness of Babyteeth, the robust playfulness of Angels in America, and the theatrical awareness of Once In Royal David’s City, there is a theatrical delight in playing, in the way theatre is made; an all-too-visible glee in the creation of moments and scenes and instances of theatre where we’re all in it together, all on the same page, collaboratively fabulating and wonder-stuck in equal measure. His Glass Menagerie is no different: there is a tenderness, a haunting refrain which runs through it, much like the musical ‘Menagerie’ theme which Williams specifies in his script. To read Flack’s Director’s Note is to be struck by the deep respect and wonder for humanity which sits at the core of all his work, “a sensitivity to the feelings of others… a palpable concern for those who don’t fit in,” as Elissa Blake wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. Part of the essence of Flack’s directing style, as much as anyone can have a singular style, is “related to oddity and exuberance and letting the actors go as far as they possibly can.” It’s not that his work is odd in a disconcerting way, but rather odd in a slightly unexpected, delightful, whimsical and theatrical way. And so Flack’s Menagerie is not just a continuation of this style, but perhaps a maturation, a deepening of compassion and sensitivity.
Set against the blackness of the stage, Michael Hankin’s set of a St. Louis apartment is acutely realised, from the lace curtains and peeling paint, to the iron fire escape, the carpets, floorboards, and furniture, and grounds us in a very real space and time. While vivid and tangible, it feels pushed too far back in the space to be totally present, though I suppose that is partly due to the idea of distance, of memory, which pervades the play.  Complemented by Mel Page’s costumes – functional and period-appropriate, but ever-so-eloquent as to what they tell us about the characters – there is a tangible memory-ness to Flack’s production which makes it even more haunting, even more eerie. With Damien Cooper’s poetic evocations of lightning, candlelight and bare electrical lightbulbs, the illusion is brought to an almost complete state by Stefan Gregory’s lilting fragmentary music, little snatches which appear and disappear like memories.
In the published script, Williams describes projections – both images and inter-titles – which pepper the action on a scrim painted to blend in with the rest of the set. Here Flack – perhaps like Benedict Andrews in Measure for Measure (Belvoir, 2010) and The Maids (Sydney Theatre Company, 2013) – uses video cameras to project moments onto screens positioned on either side of the stage, and while it is affecting and effective, it does perhaps erect a secondary barrier between audience and performers which in some cases feels unnecessary. Shot in black-and-white, these images are a mixture of what appears to be live-feed and pre-recorded images which linger long after the moment has passed from in front of them. Like fragments from old films, there is a lyrical quality to them, a further haunting to their content, which makes you ache with nostalgia and a kind of love for Laura in particular. For all their black-and-white beauty, the constant voyeuristic gazing feels as though it is from a different play, even if though they do amplify what Tom talks about when he likens himself to a “magician” at the beginning of the play. Like all good magicians, he “gives you [an] illusion that has the appearance of truth – he is talking about a lie; something that looks and sounds like reality but is not actually happening,” as Mullins wrote in an essay reproduced in the program. “[But] let us not be magicians; such tricks are a temporary escape and will only sustain you for the time it takes to see them disappear. Like Tennessee let us seek real magic, like the magic of falling in love that is being pushed so hard upon his sister but utterly denied to him.” Flack’s representation of rain is particularly memorable, as is Laura’s long stare down the camera, her heartbreaking gaze full of longing and a quiet desperation to run, to fly away from this place, if only she could.
Luke Mullins’ Tom is bitter and cynical to his mother Amanda, yet open and loving towards his sister Laura. He is in control of the staging of the play yet powerless to stop the fate that awaits of his sister, and therein lies the play’s tragedy, its heartbreaking reality. In Tom, there is tenderness towards those less able, a beautiful compassion, as well as the frustration of a young man raging against his situation in order to seek his fate. Rose Riley’s Laura is solemn yet youthful, fragile and severe, her black hair and dark eyes heartbreakingly piercing, her smile like pure light, yet it is dampened by the reality of her situation, both within the world of the play and historically. As Flack writes in his Director’s Note, “Laura’s quietness in the play is loud with the absence of Rose’s voltage… [Following her lobotomy,] Where once there were two Williams siblings… both so full of impulse and oddity, both so original and forceful, [now] only one could still speak for himself.” Like one of her glass creatures, she is too fragile to venture too far outside the apartment; she herself is another glass creature sitting on the shelf. And therein lies the tragedy of the Menagerie.
Pamela Rabe’s Amanda is not the all-controlling gorgon she could have been, but rather a woman who yearns for a better time, the days of youth where she once (incredibly!) entertained seventeen gentleman callers in a single afternoon. She’s the kind of woman who is “not paranoiac, but [has lived] her life in paranoia,” as Williams writes in his character notes in the script. She is terrified of what might happen, of what the reality of their situation might reveal, and her actions are humorous as they are incredibly moving and perhaps even pitiful. As Jim, the Gentleman Caller, Harry Greenwood is gangly but youthful, kind-hearted if perhaps a little cruel in the way he acts at the end of the play. “A nice ordinary young man,” his scene with Laura at the end is heartbreaking because you know the reality of the situation, because you know it cannot be. Yet none of these characters feel anything less than people, anything less than deeply intensely human.
As in Babyteeth, there are many beautiful moments here, borne out of a theatrical vocabulary which delights in very ordinary things being made extraordinary. Flowers in glass jars on the edge of the stage; the purple lights in Tom’s monologue about the night club, shining through the smokey air; the evocation of rain; Laura’s fragility in her pale turquoise dress, younger than she seems but yet older and Tom’s consolation of Laura when he sees how affected she is by Jim’s arrival; Jim and Laura’s candle-lit waltz; Stefan Gregory’s music; Damien Cooper’s lighting in the dinner scenes; Laura and Tom sharing a bed for a night… Much of Flack’s production recalls the line from C.S. Lewis – “There is an extraordinary charm in other people's domesticities. Every lighted house, seen from the road, is magical: every pram or lawn-mower in someone else’s garden: all smells or stirs of cookery from the windows of alien kitchens” – and it is deeply affecting theatre.
Ultimately though, for all its hauntingness and hauntedness, it feels like something is missing from this Menagerie, yet I am unable to quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s something to do with the screens, with the projections – maybe they would work better if it was just the inter-titles, projected above the doorway to the kitchen; maybe it’s the double-frame they give the production, the feeling of looking out through your window at a household across the street. Maybe it’s the mercurial intangibility of the play itself, like a memory, the way it flickers and fades before our eyes, the way we’re never quite sure what is real or what is imagined. Maybe it’s the too-close-to-life struggle of searching for a – the – truth beyond the obvious, as Flack writes; “to come to know and hopefully never forget what it is to have a care for a queer, fragile, beautiful thing.” Perhaps because we already know the outcome of the play from the beginning, the ending feels slightly empty, slightly too forced upon the play for us to swallow it wholly. Though it is still immensely affecting, it does ring with a kind of hollowness, a fragile desperation - a hoplessness - to escape the ties that bind and strike out for the moon on your own. Sometimes, though, I don’t think we can ever truly separate ourselves from those ties, we can never truly escape who we are and always will be to our siblings. And I think this is the biggest thing in the Menagerie – that Laura will always be there, on that shelf, no matter how far or wide Tom runs; that they will both be inextricably linked to the other until the end, because of what happened in the events in the play.
As Flack asks, “What do we do about the gentle, the odd, the peculiar, the monstrous, the marvellous, the broken? But what are we without them?”

Theatre playlist: 59. Dream Violin, Craig Armstrong

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