In September, Sam Mendes made his case for keeping the Donmar Warehouse open in the most eloquent manner possible, by unveiling a gem-like production of Tennessee Williams's first major stage success. The adjectives which dripped most frequently off critics' pens were "exquisite" and "immaculate", and it is a pleasure to report that they are still valid.
The relative intimacy (in West End terms) of the 800-seat Comedy Theatre is increased by designer Rob Howell's device of running a walkway around the auditorium at dress circle level, so that narrator Tom Wingfield visibly makes his entrances from the outside world into the enclosed, isolated family apartment. The dim, predominantly blue lighting and projection of scene titles onto the bare back wall emphasise the far-off nature of the events in this memory play yet refrain from alienating the audience; the climactic scene between Tom's pathologically shy sister Laura and "gentleman caller" Jim, who turns out to have been the object of her sole high-school crush, is played (in what seems little more than natural candlelight) to the exhilarating theatrical sound of an audience in rapt silence.
In staging a play inspired by Williams's own sometimes harrowing family upbringing, Mendes skilfully avoids coarsening our responses to any of the characters. Mother Amanda smothers Laura with her desires for a bright future and Tom with her self-pity at being a deserted wife, but in Zoë Wanamaker's performance such despotism is revealed as understandable and even well-meant. Jim's smug self-satisfaction, and the agony he inadvertently generates as he first gives romantic hope to Laura then dashes it by admitting that he is already spoken for, are offset by a genuine warmth and sympathy; in fact, Mark Dexter (in his professional début) is visibly "doing" Jimmy Stewart, than whom there could be no finer model for such a figure. Ben Walden gives Tom a mild, Christopher Walken-like dislocation – leading as he does the double life of a would-be poet working in a crummy warehouse – and suffuses his narratorial passages with the uncomfortable consciousness that in the end he has followed his father's dishonourable escape route.
But, in this production, it is Laura whose hopes, insecurities and sufferings occupy centre stage. Claire Skinner delivers a luminous performance, arousing a magnificent pity without ever becoming simply pitiful. She is, as Williams dictated Laura should be, as beautiful and fragile as the collection of tiny glass animals in which she finds her only solace. The playwright also knew, as so many of his subsequent directors have not, to leaven the torment with darts of grim humour; nowhere is this more touching than when Skinner's Laura strives to alleviate Jim's guilt at having accidentally broken the horn off her favourite glass unicorn whilst dancing with her.
The plotting of The Glass Menagerie may be on the contrived side, but Mendes's remarkable production carries all before its compact beauty. Even in transfer, it continues to argue for the preservation of the Donmar.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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