Kate O’Flynn as Laura and Brian J Smith as Jim
(Photo: Johan Persson)
021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams
The narrator tells us up front: “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic….I am the narrator of the play and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother, Amanda, my sister Laura, and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes.” The narrator is Tom, an aspiring writer who is trapped in the “living death” of a job in a shoe factory and the claustrophobia of life in a small apartment in a tenement in St Louis with his mother and sister. The play which Tom narrates, and plays his part in, consists of a series of snapshots of the family’s life back in 1938, filtered through the emotional lens of Tom’s memory. The play is very much “a picture of my own heart”, as its author Tennessee Williams said about the intent of all of his play writing, and in this case it is a particularly personal portrait of Williams’ own family. The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’s breakthrough, opening in March 1945 on Broadway to rave reviews, and its box office success catapulted its 34-year old author to fame and fortune, a status affirmed two years later with the Broadway success of his most famous play A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Glass Menagerie is now a standard on educational curricula and in perennial theatrical revivals, loved for its heart wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of this flawed family, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language. The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, with Cherry Jones repeating her role as Amanda, and Kate O’Flynn giving an ethereal performance as Laura. I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director John Tiffany to share his insights into this enduring classic.
John Tiffany is the winner of two Tony Awards, an Olivier, a Drama Desk and an Obie award as a director and his productions have earned countless other award nominations and wins. His recent work includes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in both London and New York (Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Direction of a Play); The Glass Menagerie (A.R.T., Broadway and West End); The Ambassador (BAM); Pinocchio (National Theatre); Once (Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical). For the National Theatre of Scotland he directed Let the Right One In (also Royal Court, West End and St. Ann’s Warehouse); Macbeth (also Lincoln Center and Broadway); Enquirer; The Missing; Peter Pan; The House of Bernarda Alba; The Bacchae (also Lincoln Center); Black Watch (Olivier Award for Best Director); Elizabeth Gordon Quinn; Home: Glasgow. As Associate Director at the Royal Court Theatre, productions include The End of History, Road, The Twits, Hope and The Pass. He was educated at the University of Glasgow (M.A. in Theatre and Classics). John was founding Associate Director at the National Theatre of Scotland from 2005–2012 and a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University from 2010–2011.
Our Footnotes to The Glass Menagerie include Tennessee Williams’ innovative ideas about lighting as an element of what he called his “plastic drama”; the endearing ambiguity of the character of Jim, the gentleman caller; the infinite distance of memory; and the explosive times the play was written and set in.
Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …