“People are not so dreadful when you know them”
And so to the second of three The Glass Menageries in a month for me. Ellen McDougall’s production for Headlong has already played extensive runs in Leeds and Liverpool before nipping down to Richmond and Warwick for a week each and I was glad of the opportunity to see this most intriguing of directors (Henry the Fifth, Idomeneus, Anna Karenina) take on Tennessee Williams’ classic memory play. With ‘a frustrated mother, a daughter lost in her imagination, and a son intent on rebellion’, all this family needs to tip it right over the edge is an inopportune visit from a gentleman caller.
Whereas Samuel Hodges layered up the Wingfields’ existence with a scrapbook full of video references and visual cues, McDougall goes the opposite way in stripping the play to its bare bones, excavating existence through bodies alone with minimal props. Fly Davis’ design suspends the black box of Tom’s mind above water in which naturally only he can paddle, a space in which his memories play out or are perhaps trapped, like the characters themselves. A staircase at the rear leads only into darkness, there’s no real escape possible from the drudgery of life with all its anecdotes repeated ad nauseam.
And liberated from naturalism, the acting takes on a nightmarish quality. Greta Scacchi’s Amanda has rarely been this highly-strung, forever on the edge of an actual tizzy whether reminiscing about those jonquils or over-excitedly welcoming the long-awaited gentleman caller into supper. Tom Mothersdale’s Tom is an appealing narrator, dolefully watching over the audience as they enter and the action as it unfolds at his instigation, Erin Doherty’s painfully withdrawn Laura at times distressing to watch, pressing herself against the wall or the floor as if she could melt herself away.
The overall effect is certainly intense and it really ignites with the arrival of Eric Kofi Abrefa’s gentleman caller, even bursting briefly into outright expressionism. His presence (intriguingly problematised by Clare Brennan’s review for the Observer, though I don’t agree with much of her assertion, not least getting to pick and choose when colour-blind casting works…) fires the women into fatal overdrive though it’s a shame McDougall denies them the chance to find succour in each other in the final moments. I was moved more by the Nuffield’s production if I’m honest but still appreciated the intellectual rigour McDougall brought here – now bring on Sam Gold in Amsterdam!