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Brenda Blethyn plays The Glass Menagerie

Amanda and LauraWe were at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Saturday to see Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. The production was directed by Braham Murray and starred Brenda Blethyn in the central role of Amanda Wingfield.

Back in March 2007 I posted a review of the same play with Jessica Lange in the starring role, and it was interesting and instructive to compare and contrast the differences in the two productions.

In Lange’s case one could really believe she was a faded beauty. She certainly believed it herself and the possibility of receiving 27 gentlemen callers in one day didn’t seem to stretch the point too far. With Blethyn’s portrayal, so many gentlemen in one day was a remote possibility, or, rather, a creative act of the imagination. Lange had looked after herself as much as possible, whereas Blethyn was quite content to pad around the flat in a worn old dressing gown. On the other hand Blethyn is interesting to watch and, especially, to listen to. She makes extraordinary sounds. Sounds of sympathy or incredulity which come from somewhere towards the back of her throat, a kind of vocal interrogation chamber where words are put to the rack and meaning squeezed out of them.

One has to wonder if so many revivals of the play (there was another one up in Edinburgh last month) are coming because America once again resembles Tom Wingfield’s opening remarks about the thirties when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. The coming election where all candidates are lying through their teeth and the series of denials about the real effects of Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, gun control.

Because, although The Glass Menagerie concentrates its focus on one family, we are left in no doubt that Williams’ is concerned, by extension, with the community which was also his life. And this one family, the Wingfields, tell each other and themselves, lies all the time.

There are no clear victims or victors here. Each family member is complicit in locking himself or herself into the rigid web of the family. Each of them needs to be exactly as they are in order to maintain their own position and to support the position of the others. The almost terminally shy and crippled Laura has made the same decisions as her mother and brother and forfeited (as far as any audience is concerned) her special claim to pity. We only pity her as much as we pity her brother or her mother.

In the final analyses none of them can escape their chains. Tom runs away but is still tightly bound in his mind: Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger — anything that can blow your candles out! . . . For nowadays the world is lit by lightening! Blow out your candles, Laura...

A tremendous production, really enjoyable. And although Brenda Blethyn stands out, the cast has a real feeling of ensemble about it. The language, the language . . . is magical . . . it lifts you out of your seat and pushes, pulls and cajoles you around the gamut of possible emotions.

The picture shows Brenda Blethyn as Amanda Wingfield and Emma Hamilton as Laura Wingfield.

3 Responses to “Brenda Blethyn plays The Glass Menagerie”

  1. […] This post refers to another version of the same play […]

  2. Clare D says:

    Hello John – how very interesting it is to see our different takes on the same play, and interesting too to read your reactions to the same play played by different troops. There are so many variations possible – and I really like the idea of the mother padding around in almost ragged clothes. I can imagine Brenda Blethyn doing that very well.

    It struck me about the timing of the revival of the play when I heard the narrator’s introduction – the parallels with today’s society even a year a on from when you wrote this are still striking.

    jb says: Exactly, Clare. That was why I brought it to your attention on your own blog. A play which is in many ways about time, and its time coming round again. The magic of theatre, eh?

  3. Stig says:

    I stumbled across this page searching for production notes on Tennessee Williams. Your comment about Lange caught my attention. As a fading star her performances make me sad. Once a great beauty, now passed by. Perhaps that role fits her like a glove.