The dangers of an old favourite
Joe Hill-Gibbins’ new production of The Glass Menagerie is an escapist delight: Jeremy Herbert’s set transports us straight back to 1930s America and Laura Hopkins’ costumes are intelligently matched to their characters. With delectable visuals and a cast that seems to intuitively understand the world of this play, this is an important Williams performance.
It’s hard to be critical of this production because it’s so enjoyable. So? Superficially this might be a good thing, but does it lead us, as audience members, into a problem of complacency? Williams is one of those writers, like Shakespeare, whom many people know of old. Often tied up with our own ‘memory plays’, watching a piece of Tennessee Williams is somehow like retreating into an interesting but comfortable place of the past. We’ve forgotten whatever our very first imrpreesion of Williams’ writing were, and instead we sit back and revel. Its strangenesses (and there are several) no longer register as alien to us, and we begin to lose our critical acumen. A position of safety diminishes our ability to be incisive about the strengths and weaknesses of a production of The Glass Menagerie and to scrutinise its successes. It is, in short, almost impossible to differentiate between a ‘good’ and an ‘excellent’ performance of a play which welcomely takes us back so far into our own history.
I wrote a while ago about the problems with Black Bread and Cucumber, a performance I enjoyed purely because it allowed me to indulge in Chekhov trivia, but which to a non-Chekhov fan would have been quite a trial. The case of indulgence is even stronger with The Glass Menagerie: it’s a play we’re unlikely to catch a revival of every five minutes, so, when we do get the chance to spend three hours with some Williams, it’s more like seeing an old friend than making a new one.