The Glass Menagerie

Eamon Flack’s thrilling production ingeniously blends overwrought drama with blistering humanity.
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Image: Rose Riley and Pamela Rabe in The Glass Menagerie; Photograph by Pia Johnson for Malthouse Theatre. 

Like all great classic plays Tennessee Williams’ seminal work The Glass Menagerie remains vital and powerful to audiences even though it was written over sixty years ago. Another sign of a classic is that it can survive many interpretations and since Menagerie is a ‘memory play’ the creative possibilities for any director taking on the piece are endless. A recent Broadway revival in 2013 presented the play as a kind of melancholy dream, complete with reflective ponds of water and magical stage entrances. This production is something entirely different. Director Eamon Flack and his team filter the piece through the lens of a faded classic film whilst never betraying the heartbreaking family drama at the core of the play.

The lead character and narrator Tom tells the audience explicitly at the beginning of the play he is giving us ‘the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.’ This means that he has control at all times over how we witness the past being presented on stage and this breathtaking new production from Belvoir Theatre company makes this point stunningly clear.

Tom (Luke Mullins) enters through the audience and delivers his opening monologue as he adjusts several video cameras that are placed around the performance space. Throughout the play live images, title cards and looped sequences are projected onto two large screens flanking the stage. Rather than simply zooming in on the actors’ faces these shots are beautifully composed creations in their own right, invoking a sense of poetry and dreamlike illusion whilst simultaneously focusing the audiences attention to central themes and amplifying characters emotions.

We see Laura’s (Rose Riley) joyous face as she stares at her reflection in her party dress at the top of act two, opaque curtains fluttering in the breeze in the foreground of the shot and slightly obscuring our view. The camera zooms in as the gentleman caller Jim (Harry Greenwood) tenderly takes Laura’s hand from her lap and lingers there painfully as he departs. Amanda (Pamela Rabe) delivers a monologue directly to camera, her voice slightly overdubbed to sound like an old Hollywood film. And all the while Tom frequently exists the Wingfield’s cramped apartment to observe at the sidelines and adjust his cameras; it’s as if we’re viewing the past through the prism of one of the beloved ‘movies’ that he claims to go and see so very often.

Flack’s thrilling Menagerie ingeniously blends overwrought drama with blistering humanity. This production feels both deliriously surreal and devastatingly realistic. Stefan Gregory’s sound design evokes classical cinema and creates a sense of nostalgia whilst the staging tends to focus more on the everyday rhythms of life in the apartment; in one brief sequence the opening and drawing of curtains becomes a kind of farcical dance. The gorgeous lighting design runs the gamut, from warm morning sunrises to intimate and slightly foreboding candlelight for Laura and Jim’s penultimate scene in act two. A magical moment occurs during Tom’s speech about the dancehall across the road when the lights hit a mirror ball and the entire theatre is bathed in bright purple starlight.      

Australian acting legend Pamela Rabe leads the brilliant cast as Wingfield family matriarch Amanda. Many great actors, including Cherry Jones in the aforementioned Broadway revival and locally Robyn Nevin for STC in 2002, have played this highly coveted role and Rabe does not disappoint. Her desperation as she struggles to secure a future for her family is both horrible and heartbreaking and when the long awaited gentleman caller finally arrives Rabe becomes hilariously giddy and frightfully garish.

Mullins presents Tom as a man who has come to the end of his rope. He is stuck in a lie, fighting to get away from a suffocating life yet devoted to his beloved sister. Mullins’ sensational performance is full of sensitivity and explosive frustration. In a refreshing interpretation Riley’s portrayal of Laura radiates great strength as opposed to paralysing meekness. Her Laura is still heartbreaking yet there is an underlying determination that is truly affective.

As the Wingfields grapple with an uncertain future we are constantly reminded of the ever shifting nature of memory and the painful scars the past can leave us. This Menagerie is absolutely captivating and incredibly exhilarating – and that’s how I’ll always remember it.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

The Glass Menagerie
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Eamon Fleck
With Harry Greenwood, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe and Rose Riley.

Malthouse Theatre
18 May – 5 June
Presented by Malthouse Theatre & Belvoir

Reuben Liversidge
About the Author
Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.