Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Glass Menagerie - Belvoir

Review by John Lombard

Amanda Wingfield (Pamela Rabe) doesn't know what to do with her daughter. Laura (Rose Riley) sits somewhere in the autism spectrum and has too much anxiety to take on a job. In a desperate, slightly deranged attempt to settle the Laura question for good, Amanda rests all hope on finding a Gentleman Caller who will fall in love with Laura and lead her into a life of moderate prosperity.

But with the proposed victim (Harry Greenwood) finally in the house and with all of the family's meagre resources devoted to wooing him, Amanda bursts onto the scene squeezed into a frock of her youth, a grotesque sight that sets the tone for an eventful evening. Amanda's tragedy is that she is so self-absorbed that even with the stakes this high she still reflexively makes the most important night of her daughter's life about her.

Amanda is essentially a demonic character, a first-rate emotional blackmailer and tyrant, bullying her son into providing for the family but constantly demeaning him and chiding him for alleged selfishness. But Tennessee Williams is too good a playwright not to give us all sides of the story, and we are keenly aware of the pressures that have shaped Amanda.

First up, Laura is genuinely a lot of work, with a rigid and quirky logic to her actions that even a more patient personality would struggle to decipher. She is completely terrified of her mother, so when her overwhelming anxiety prompts her to drop out of school she opts to keep up appearances and roam the neighbourhood in winter rather than trying to tell her. The $50 tuition forfeit is a hefty sacrifice (this is during the Great Depression) and Amanda has a right to be angry. But the screaming and raving is not really fixing the problem, it just encourages Laura to withdraw further.

Then there's Tom (Luke Mullins), Amanda's son and now the primary breadwinner. With his home life toxic, Tom heads out to the movies every night, an opportunity not only to escape into celluloid dreams but also practice the slow soaking of the committed alcoholic. Tom's options boil down to slow suicide or hopping on a boat to sail off past the edge of the world, but Amanda is too callous to recognise Tom's desperation, or that the bombardment she deploys to keep him line is now finally stiffening his resolve. Amanda is losing with tirades what she could win with love and softness.

This is a pretty horrific - and for the writer, biographical - situation, with the family a team of drowning swimmers clinging to each other for life but sinking underwater with their trashing. But there is a lot of lightness and humour too, with the tender sibling love between Tom and Laura providing a lot of life and hope.

Eamon Flack's direction has built on impressive analysis of the script. The Glass Menagerie went through several drafts in different mediums, and while it finished as a stage play it carries elements of film and even short story, artefacts that remind us of the script's evolution. In a brilliant staging coup, the stage is made into a film set complete with a conspicuous lighting rig and cameras. As the action is played, it is recorded and then broadcast onto two screens: a film and a play are being created simultaneously.

The set plays with this idea very cleverly, with parts of the set closed off to the audience but visible to the cameras, allowing for some very clever staging. The filtered and flattering black and white camera shots perfectly capture those moments where a character is living in a romanticised past. As much of the play deals with the danger of living in a deluded memory of the past, the staging is not just a display of technical virtuosity but a fresh and vital embodiment of the play's themes.

The core of the show however is Rose Riley's Laura. Laura can easily be played as someone near catatonic, a child in their own world. But Riley's Laura is a scrapper, fighting with all of her resources against impossible challenges. Riley always finds ways to be active, even if it is just rolling herself up in a carpet to avoid an awkward social situation. This dynamic characterisation of Laura is vital to the climax of the play, where with her mum finally banished from the scene she has time alone with the Gentleman Caller. The plan her mum has concocted is frankly pretty dumb, but in defiance of all the odds she almost pulls off her own happy ending - and thanks to sharp characterisation, the scene feels completely plausible. I have never the writer, the director and the actor function together in such a perfect team.

The Glass Menagerie is justly famous, one of the truly great modern plays, and Belvoir's production rises to the challenge - and then some. Laura's toy animals may be brittle glass, but this production is as tough, polished and beautiful as diamond.  I was left with only one question: sure, the first Gentleman Caller was a bust, but would a monomaniac like Amanda Wingfield really give up so easily?