EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE
The Glass Menagerie
Until August 21
Lyceum Rehearsal Studio
Until August 21
Until August 28
Reviewed by Mark Brown
This Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) staging of the renowned American Repertory Company’s production of Tennessee Williams’s great play The Glass Menagerie marks the production’s European premiere. Not only does it star acclaimed actress Cherry Jones (as the play’s matriarch, Amanda Wingfield), but it is directed by Tony Award winner John Tiffany, the man behind the National Theatre of Scotland’s (NTS) hit show Black Watch.
The playwright (aka Thomas Lanier Williams) famously uses his narrator (Tom) to describe the piece as a “dream play”. Tiffany’s production is assiduously faithful to this idea. The tone is set by Bob Crowley’s stage design, with its abstracted fire escape reaching into the sky and its panels of domesticity floating in a black sea in which the moon and stars make regular, magical appearances.
Here we are, without doubt, watching three characters (Amanda, her shy, physically disabled daughter Laura and her restless son Tom) who are haunted by the past. Indeed, the events on stage are themselves a past that is seen through the simultaneously wistful and rueful prism of Tom’s recollection.
Michael Esper (Tom), Kate O’Flynn (Laura) and Seth Numrich (the put upon “Gentleman Caller” who could never be Laura’s knight in shining armour) give fine performances, delivering the bleak humour and pathos of Williams’s play. However, the dominant presence in the drama is Amanda, whose desperate anxiety for her daughter turns her (in Tom’s memory) into an overbearing monster.
Jones gives a superb performance, offering us an Amanda with the emotional volume turned up full. Even as we are repulsed by her frantic despotism, we are also dragged into the character’s deep well of fear and pain.
If the dream-like design innovations of this production are equal to the excellent acting, the same cannot be said of the choreography by Steven Hoggett (a regular collaborator of Tiffany’s). In fairness, from Black Watch, through NTS boxing play Beautiful Burnout, Hoggett’s work has its admirers.
Here, as in the past, however, his movement seems to me to be a series of literal metaphors, heavy-handed explications of characters’ emotions that only serve to detract from the subtleties of the drama.
There are subtleties aplenty in Wind Resistance by leading Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart. A wide-ranging performance of carefully connected stories and songs, the piece appears both as the first theatre production of acclaimed playwright David Greig’s directorship of the Lyceum and a contribution to the contemporary music programme of the EIF.
This indefinite categorisation should not surprise us. The piece is part storytelling (in natural and human history, ecology, medicine, science, politics, family and, even, football) and part musical concert. To that director Wils Wilson and designers Camilla Clarke (visuals) and Jeanine Byrne (lighting) bring the sort of staging that we associate with a play.
Polwart is observably well-rehearsed, yet also engagingly conversational as she takes us from her love of Fala Moor, near her home village of Pathhead, Midlothian, to her concerns for the fragility of both the planet and the human race. The show’s title comes from its central metaphor, the flight of a skein of pink-footed geese (which the performer calls “airborne socialists”). The geese shift in formation, taking the brunt of the headwind at one moment, but soon getting their chance to shelter behind other birds.
There is, in the storytelling as much as in the lovely songs, a touching humanism, an urgent environmentalism and an impressive knowledge. Polwart’s perspective, like the show’s conception itself, is quite unique.
There is a lovely rhythm to the piece, with truly ingenious sound work by Pippa Murphy (which, among other things, merges live and recorded voice and music quite brilliantly). One can understand readily why Greig (who is dramaturg on the show) was keen to stage the piece, even if, at an-hour-and-three-quarters, it feels in need of a little trimming.
From a production by the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company to the major Fringe offering from its near neighbour, Scotland’s new writing theatre, the Traverse. Milk by Ross Dunsmore has a remarkably similar, triangular structure to Stef Smith’s Swallow, which headlined last year’s Traverse Fringe programme.
In Dunsmore’s play, which is directed by the Traverse’s artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, we are witness to the sometimes improbably connected crises of not-quite school sweethearts Steph and Ash, new parents Nicole and Danny, and frightened, impoverished elderly couple May and Cyril. Dunsmore goes for nothing short of the complete cycle of life, from birth to death, and much of what happens in between.
At its best, namely, the story of May and Cyril, the play has an affecting, Beckettian dimension. Played beautifully by Ann Louise Ross and Tam Dean Burn, theirs is a co-dependency which cannot be broken, even by death.
However, there is an inconsistency in Dunsmore’s writing. The characterisations of the teenagers teeter on the brink of cliche early on (despite nice performances from Helen Mallon and Cristian Ortega). Meanwhile the anguish of Nicole’s inability to breastfeed her newborn tips over into histrionics (a fault that lies in the writer overstretching himself, rather than in the fine acting of Melody Grove and Ryan Fletcher).
The frustration of the piece (which is Dunsmore’s first full length play) is that it simultaneously tries to tackle too many issues, whilst never quite establishing a convincing rhythm or tone. That said, the drama has promising flashes of good writing, even if it is poorly served by Fred Meller’s unmemorable, neon-flashing set.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 14, 2016
© Mark Brown