By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Braham Murray
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Wednesday 8th October 2008
I was a bit tired after a long day which involved a trip back from Stratford amongst other things, but although that might have lessened my enjoyment of some parts of this production, I still feel it was too unbalanced to do this play full justice, the excellent cast notwithstanding.
Firstly I’ll describe the set. Designed by Simon Higlett, the rear wall of the set leaned drunkenly against the side of the stage, the windows equally skew-whiff. The rest of the set had come home early from the party, though, and so was much better behaved. We sat just off the centre aisle, so to our left was a day bed with jonquils rather absurdly flowering beside it (they looked like daffs to me, but from their use later in the play I deduced what they were meant to be). Near that was a small table which had a typewriter and books, further back was the dresser and dining room table, and the space extended back to create an exit to the (unseen) kitchen. Above this, along the back wall ran a walkway with a metal railing. At the right hand side it became a stairway down to the apartment, with the central props of the railing perpendicular to the angle of descent. To the right of the stairs was another chaise longue, and beside that was the gramophone and records. In front of these was the semi-circular three-tiered stand that held the glass figurines, and above it there were five strands of wires suspended, with copies of the glass animals attached. I suspect this was to make it clear to everyone in the audience, not just those at the front, what was in Laura’s collection, and this symbolic yet practical touch was echoed by a short cascade of boxes down part of the rear wall, towards the corner. When the lighting was bright enough, I realised these had shoes tumbling out of them, representing the boring job that Tom does to support his family, and a nice diagonal counterpoint to the dangling glassware. Later, when it lit up, I spotted the Paradise Club sign to the left of the back wall – it was just too dark over that way to spot it earlier. There were rugs and cushions and knick knacks all dotted round the place, entirely in keeping with the period, and during the interval those kind stage crew folk came and spruced the place up, ready for Laura’s “gentleman caller”. The typewriter and books were cleared away, there were bright new chintz covers for the chairs and even the cushions on the dining chairs, and the table was covered in a beautiful cloth. The ladies’ clothes changed to match. It was very detailed and created a strong sense of the period and specific location, though not necessarily the wider setting.
I hadn’t seen the play for a long time (1998, according to our records), so I’d forgotten that Tom narrates the story. It started with him lighting up the first of many cigarettes (statutory notices adorned every available door on the way in), and telling us that this was not a true story, because it was based on memory, and then giving us the social context of the period, the 1930s. The mention of economic catastrophe inevitably got a good laugh from the audience, and it was certainly a good opening; getting a laugh while connecting us to these characters’ circumstances is an excellent way to get an audience involved – well, it works for me, anyway. Sadly, things didn’t go so well after that.
For me, Brenda Blethyn as Amanda wasn’t believable enough as a woman who had been a real southern belle in her youth. This meant that her character’s grieving for past glories, and mourning over missed opportunities for happiness was transmuted into vanity and fantasy, lessening the emotional impact, and turning her into a thoroughly unpleasant harridan with no redeeming or sympathetic features whatsoever. This was coupled with Emma Hamilton’s rather robust portrayal of Laura, which underplayed her timidity and suffering, and left me feeling that Laura was essentially fine if only her mother would shut up for a bit. Again, I found it difficult to engage with her character, and with that of her brother Tom. He was another unpleasant chap, driven to drink and extended cinema attendance (or so he claimed) by the dreadful behaviour of their mother. I don’t blame him, but then I wouldn’t want to spend time with him either. Only Jim, the gentleman caller, showed us some degree of recognisable normality, and it was in his scene with Laura that the performance began to find its feet. Jim was able to show his natural self, instead of the life-and-soul-of-the-party persona he’d been demonstrating till now, while Laura was finally able to express some of her feelings to someone not in her family and feel accepted, liked and even loved, at least for a brief moment. I liked this scene very much, though without the build up from the rest of the play it couldn’t be as moving as I’ve experienced before, but it did show us some nice subtle touches in the two performances.
I thought the main problem was the uncertainty as to how accurate Amanda and Tom are about Laura’s problems. This meant I had to consider the play intellectually, to figure out the clues I was being given, rather than being able to engage emotionally with the characters and their situations. This isn’t Pirandello, for heaven’s sake! But it certainly had some sense of playing with reality, presumably based on the opening narration. I also got a whiff of Chekov, in that instead of going into the heavier emotional aspects of the play, the production seemed determined to give us a lighter version, almost a comedy take on the play. There is humour in it, but I’m not convinced the play can take a comedy emphasis to this extent.
I was also aware of how close in time this play was to Arthur Miller’s first efforts, and could see how he might have been influenced by this, especially in relation to Death Of A Salesman. It’s still a good play, and there was enough to enjoy in this performance that I didn’t feel I’d wasted my time, but I do hope I’ll see a version that involves me more than this in the future.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me