The Glass Menagerie

16th to 23rd March 2024

Tennessee Williams | Belgrade Theatre | Directed by Atri Banerjee

Williams’ poetry pulses through Atri Banerjee’s beautifully staged production of ‘The Glass Menagerie’.

“The play is memory,” we are told at the start of the performance by Kasper Hilton-Hille who is both our narrator and a character. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted…in memory everything seems to happen to music.” Williams’ poetic opening, before we are cast into the wilderness of Tom’s memories, is honoured: a shadowy, dreamlike world in which it is never silent is conjured on stage. The action unfolds on a huge tilted disc, dotted with small collections of barely visible glass animals at the edges. The word ‘paradise’ revolves slowly above the stage for most of the production in tantalising neon, just out of reach. In a play full of symbolism, Rosanna Vize’s set works beautifully as a metaphor for the precarious and unbalanced nature of human memory, capturing the delicate and uncertain way in which we recall the past.

As with so many of Williams’ later plays, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ (his first commercial success in 1945) is about family. Set in St. Louis in 1937, matriarch Amanda, abandoned by her husband years earlier, is the frustrated and embittered head of the Wingfield family. Her two adult children, Tom and Laura, are the source of her latent rage and disappointment. Like Blanche DuBois in ‘Streetcar’, she seems to represent the decline of the ‘Old South’, a decaying world of gentility and charm but one whose wealth was created by slave labour. The privileged world of her past, as she recalls it, was one of gentleman callers and social graces.

Geraldine Somerville is a domineering and overbearing Amanda, her controlling behaviours alienating us as much as her children until we start to see the cracks. It’s a powerhouse performance: nuanced and, at times, tender. Despite her snobbery she emerges as a pitiable figure: a strong woman fighting for her children in the only way she knows how. When she rails at Tom, accusing him of living in a dream and manufacturing illusions, it is painfully apparent that her misplaced optimism is closer to illusion than anything her children are guilty of.

Tensions simmer under the surface in her fiery relationship with son Tom, brilliantly played by Kasper Hilton-Hille. Their arguments, full of rage on both sides, burst from Tom’s memory like fireworks. As both narrator and character, we are closer to Tom than any other character. We are watching his story and, as the memories layer up, we feel his frustration and empathise with how torn he is. He longs to escape, follow in his father’s footsteps, and leave his life behind. Poetry and “the movies” provide some distraction from warehouse drudgery and family tensions but his sense of responsibility is strong. The play feels like his confession, an exorcising of his guilt, the sharing of his memories in the hope of purging his regrets. It is deeply personal and affecting.

Natalie Kimmerling’s Laura is not simply a daughter crippled by anxiety: she combines fragility with beauty and strength in a moving performance. Her painful shyness and retreat into a fantasy world tending to her collection of glass animals feels like a self-preserving response to her family circumstances. Jim’s gentle suggestion that she suffers from an inferiority complex rings true in a world which alienates people who are “different”, a nod to the actor’s disability which reimagines Laura’s limp in the original play.

In the role of the much-anticipated ‘gentleman-caller’ Jim O’Connor, Zacchaeus Kayode exudes caring confidence and seems to be the perfect suitor for Laura. “You think of yourself as having the only problems, as being the only one who is disappointed,” he tells her. “But just look around you and you will see lots of people as disappointed as you are.” His seemingly stronger connection to reality is muddied, however, when Laura’s memories of high school transport him back to the success and promise of his youth.

A mesmerising and poetic production which lingers long in the memory.

A Belgrade Theatre, Rose Theatre and Alexandra Palace Theatre production in association with the Royal Exchange Theatre, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is playing at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry from 16th to 23rd March 2024.

The Glass Menagerie