Reviewed by Fiona Hart
I have a confession to make: I have a slight obsession with Luke Mullins. Ever since I saw him perform in Angels in America last year, I have followed this truly transfixing actor from play to play, and so when I learned he would be teaming up once more with Eamon Flack (his Angels director) for The Glass Menagerie this spring, I knew I would be in for a treat.
And by and large, I was. The acting is exemplary all round (put Mullins on a stage and you soon notice if his fellow cast members are not up to scratch); Stefan Gregory’s sound is beautiful and hauntingly appropriate for the era (as a string player myself the fact that I hardly noticed it at times shows just how perfectly placed it is); and the staging is intriguing: multiple video cameras project pivotal moments up on to two big screens in black and white, and Mullins’ frequent (and sole) manipulation of these constantly remind us that we are watching not a story, but a sequence of memories, being played out, focused on and scrutinized the way Mullins’ character Tom remembers them. Indeed, we quickly learn that Tom is obsessed with the movies, so it makes perfect sense that the way he chooses to recall his painful past is through this slightly detached (yet simultaneously voyeuristic by the nature of the frequent close-ups) art form.
Bedazzled with the acting, sound and staging it is easy to get caught up in the world of this production and come away declaring it a triumph. However, a couple of minor oversights broke the spell for me throughout the performance. Firstly, the set is just a little too closed: sat at the end of a row, when the action was in the corner of the house my view was entirely obstructed as the set walls come round the corner (creating a physical fourth wall for a couple of feet on either side). And yes, the production consciously ensures these moments are captured by the cameras, but to me the poignancy of seeing them on screen is that this is a second way to view what is playing out in front of our eyes – as opposed to being the only way. Secondly, the fragile sister character of Laura, which is mostly performed exquisitely by Rose Riley (including a gorgeous scene change in which she lazily puts on a new dress while her mother and brother scurry around her in wonderfully symbolic fashion), is at times belied by Riley’s rich, resonant voice. Understandably confident around her family members, this is not a problem initially, but when she uses the same tone with the gentleman caller it unfortunately jars with her otherwise terrifically timid demeanour.
In the grand scale of things however these are but minor niggles in a production that ought to be regarded as Belvoir’s finest of their season – not least of all because of the brilliant casting. Highly deserving of mention is Pamela Rabe as Tom and Laura’s inexorable mother, who buffets us through this play just as she tries to push her children through life, providing welcome bursts of energy on the otherwise pensive stage. Her constant striving for her American dream, when set against Tom’s ambition for his own very different version of it and Laura’s lack of drive towards anything other than her current dreamlike world, leaves the audience wondering if Rabe’s character is in fact the most helpless and sympathetic of them all, her discontent making her far more of a tragic heroine than Laura, safe in the confines of her mental illness, will ever be.
The play’s wrap-up is quick and decisively directed, with the final narration from Tom long enough to take us out of the past and close the play but short enough to ensure the memory section is still freshly within reach, as it has clearly remained for him ever since. Flack and Mullins between them have executed Tennessee Williams’ oft called ‘memory play’ beautifully: bravo gentlemen. Long may this partnership continue.
The Glass Menagerie is playing at Belvoir Theatre until 2 November 2014