Arcola Theatre, London – until 13 July 2019
The Wingfields are headed by controlling matriarch Amanda Wingfield, the mother of adults; son Tom and daughter Laura. Lesley Ewen is perfect as Amanda, whom she imbues with the right amount of gentility and the faded glamour of a Southern Belle, underscored with passive aggression. Ewen shows us that Amanda is a mass of contradictions, driven by huge doses of self-delusion.
Amanda clearly loves and cares for her children and wants the best for them. There is an ambiguity in her, which is as much Ewen’s creation as it is in Williams’ writing. This caused me to question whether Amanda’s nurturing is about her children and her concern for their futures, or if this just about how their behaviour and prospects reflect on her.
According to Amanda’s professed autobiography, she is from the southern elite. She makes plenty of references to being a high society girl who always had plenty of admirers, “gentleman callers” who were from old and new money; planters and planters sons, and the “Wolf of Wall Street”. She even had invitations to the Governor’s house. Amanda’s behaviour is disturbing, not only due to her self-delusions, but her sexualised behaviour towards men. She is so coquettish, even with her son; at one point she inhales the scent from Tom’s comb, perhaps displaying a reverse Oedipus complex. Amanda is giddy, giggly and flirtatious with Jim, who is at first taken aback, but then laps up the attention.
Laura, subtly played by Naimah Swaleh, initially presents as someone on the autistic spectrum; her extreme introversion and inability to make friends, traps her in her own world, fixated with her glass menagerie of ornaments which she talks to. Laura also takes solace in her father’s old gramophone records on which she repeatedly listens to jazz. Jim, played by Charlie Maher, seems to unlock her when he visits the Wingfields for a meal.
Swaleh’s Laura visibly brightens, her animation is genuine, things look promising as Jim coaxes her to interact with him. Through Jim’s cheerleading, Laura reveals that her self consciousness about her disability has been holding her back.
Laura’s bird-like timidity and childlike fragility make her dependent on her mother and brother. There is more to this as Laura suffers from extreme anxiety, to the extent where she is made physically ill by anything that stresses her. Whenever Laura struggles with anxiety, she drops out; from high school and typing school. Fearing the reaction from her controlling mother she pretends to continue to attend the typing course. It looks hopeful when, with Jim’s kindness and enthusiasm, Laura enjoys his company and attention. Jim gets so carried away by her helplessness, adoration and his own ability, that he oversteps the mark.
Charlie Maher as Jim O’Connor and Naima Swaleh as Laura Wingfield
In his Director’s note, Femi Ekufowoju Jr. stated that his production of Tennessee Williams’, The Glass Menagerie “is not conceived around the specifics of white culture, but reimagines this masterpiece within the context of Black culture.” However I have my doubts about the effectiveness of this. The most significant change Ekufowoju Jr makes is in casting The Wingfields as an African-American family, although Jim a “Gentlemen Caller” is still white. It is still set in the Deep South of late 1930s/1940s America. There are small but important changes to the terminology originally used by Tennessee Williams depicting the racist language, of southern whites in 1940s Mississippi, including replacing the N word and other abusive words for African-Americans with neutrality of “maid” and “servant.”
Because, other than those alterations, the original text remains, I found it jarring that Amanda Wingfield, the domineering mother of Tom and Laura, refers to attending Governor’s functions as a young woman and having male admirers from planters and sons of planters in the Mississippi Delta. The overwhelming majority of planters and planters descendants were Caucasian, owning plantations and the African/African – American slaves who toiled in them. Planters and their descendants were the aristocracy of Southern white society. Although Ekufowoju Jr reminds us that there were freed African and African- Americans who owned African/ African- American slaves, they were in the minority with an even smaller minority owning substantial slave plantations. It also appears that to date there have been only 2 African-American US state governors. Isn’t it more likely that Amanda’s ancestors were sharecroppers after the American Civil War and prior to that, slaves?
However what I found more difficult to come to terms with, is Tom’s friendship with Jim. Tom, now an African American, is working alongside and fraternising with a white man, Jim. In the 1930s and 1940s of the American Deep South, jobs and workplaces were segregated on the basis of race (and gender). Black people were barred from promotions and senior roles. It is even more unlikely that Jim would have socialised and visited the Wingfield family home, given the virulent racism and white supremacism prevalent in the American South during this era. Matriarch Amanda Wingfield, even at the height of her delusions, would not have dared to entertain Jim, a white man, as a romantic prospect for her black daughter, given segregation and the laws on miscegenation.
It is also a challenge to believe, given the Wingfield’s straitened circumstances, that Laura, an African American woman, would have had the opportunity to start a typing course. It is more likely that Laura, along with 60% of African-American women in 1940s, would have had to go into domestic service. I am aware that due to segregation in the South and discrimination in the North, a small and burgeoning African American middle/ upper class developed, creating their own businesses and becoming professionals to serve African American communities. Indeed Amanda sells products from home. However due to endemic racism, African-Americans were largely barred from white- collar work.
I admit that these conflicts between this updated production and the original script (and the history of African Americans) did distract me, but despite this and because of such a talented cast performing Tennessee Williams play, I was still able to appreciate how well The Glass Menagerie was performed.
To contradict myself, in some ways it sits well that Jim, played realistically by Maher, is so self-confident and hopeful, as he is a white man in 1930s’/1940s’ America. Jim is a positive force, motivated by self-improvement, he attends public speaking evening courses. But it is not just his personality which is the path to social mobility. As a white man he has the opportunities for advancement, which his friend Tom, now an African American, does not.
Michael Abubakar as Tom, makes us feel Tom’s frustration and depression that he has failed to reach his potential as a writer due to being trapped in a job he hates, because he is the main breadwinner of the family. Abubakar is convincing as Tom, who self-medicates through drinking and going to the cinema as forms of escapism. Abubakar shows us how much pain Tom is in, eliciting sympathy despite his shockingly violent outbursts towards his mother. These seem to be acts of self-loathing, as well as attempts to fight the manipulation and smothering love of his mother. Amanda remains a fascinating and toxic mix of self-delusion and pragmatism. Left by her husband to raise two children, she’s a grafter, selling products to acquaintances to keep her family afloat. We assume she pushed Laura into starting the typing course, because there were few opportunities for single women, who were not independently wealthy. Amanda knows the only other alternative for Laura is marriage, which is why she gets Tom to bring Jim for supper.
Michael Abubakar as Tom Wingfield
In the end all protagonists suffer from varying degrees of desperation about being trapped in their unfulfilled lives. Amanda copes by maintaining her self-delusions and aggrandisements about the past. Laura reverts to talking to and treasuring her fragile glass menagerie, retreating into her own world. Tom, a frustrated writer, manages by heavily drinking and watching movies. Even Jim, the most positive of them all and with the most self- belief, appears to convince himself he is happy to settle for married life with Betty. Although Tom manages to escape, all but Laura are disappointed at having never reached their potential.
All photos by Idil Sukan
The Glass Menagerie, is at Arcola Theatre 23 May – 13 July 2019