The Patter of Southern Accents
I long to hear Tennessee in other accents. Like nudity in Live Art, the southern drawl has become a badge of authenticity for Williams' plays, but frequently acts as a barrier to appreciation. It's not the warm spring rain that heralds love outside tonight, but bitter sleet that turns to puddles on Glasgow's pavements. And The Glass Menagerie is not about the place and time alone: it deals in the hell that only love and only hope can bring.
After Abigail's Party, The Patter Merchants take on the master of repression. They work subterranean Stereo well, pitching scenes around the room and wandering between stage and dinner table and the wooden couch: sharp direction from Richard Pears belies the two hours, and Susan Clark brings such eloquent sadness to Laura that I can't help but think she went on to become a theatre critic. The accents are the weakest point, especially since both Kenny Feeney and Gill De Groote still seem stuck in Abigail's 1970s' suburbia. Perhaps playing to their relative strengths- Feeney's oppressed slouch and De Groote's manic joy- might have shifted this Glass Menagerie into another register.
Since this is regarded as Williams' most autobiographical play- apart from the ones that Glasgay! unearthed in 2008- the cracked veneer of southern aspirations hangs heavy. Lovely as the accent might be, they have survived as classics because of their universality. Menagerie exposes the way that a moment's hope can cast a soul deeper into hell than regular, monotonous despair: the sharpest hurt in Satan's mind is always the moment when he remember's God's bright joy. The arrival of a "gentleman caller", though he be a gentlemen in the sense of selfish, intemperate and progressive, opens up opportunity for Laura, and hope. Then he crushes it, symbolically breaking her favourite glass ornament.
It is this that draws me into the play- and ceratinly not the self-obsessed narrative from Williams' cypher, Tom. There are faults in the structure, too. Crucial ideas are repeated, like a Hollywood movie script, and the symbolism is crude. Laura collects glass objects: how they shine! How fragile they are! Thanks, Tennessee, for the metaphors. Yet it is in the subtle nuance of Jim, the gentleman caller, a man both arrogant and trying to hold onto a moral beam, or the meanderings of the mother living in a sensuous past, that Williams' shows his gift for compassion. It's a shame he wastes it on justifying his own cowardly escape from his family.
The leisurely pace, and interludes of jazz and soft piano composed by Rudi De Groot, let the script breathe, appropriately for an evening that is about absence. The missing father, the missing beloved lurk off-stage, their memories dictating the anguish. Both Laura's tragedy and Tom's melodrama are evocative, and Williams' sly predicions about the future are given rhetorical gravity. The Merchants are showing imagination in taking on big name plays and using Stereo as a venue, and have enough reverence not to get clever with the interpretation, without being slavish. But, as much as I love that southern lilt, I still long to hear another voice.