THEATRE/CAPE TOWN: Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, presented by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, Artscape Theatre Centre Arena, Cape Town, November 1 – 30, 2019
The Glass Menagerie: review
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Writer: Tennessee Williams (first staged 1944 in Chicago)
Cast: Fiona Ramsay, Jenny Stead, Matthew Baldwin and Marcel Meyer.
Direction and set design: Fred Abrahamse
Costume design: Marcel Meyer
Lighting design: Faheem Bardien
Original score: Jaco Griessel
Live music accompaniment on cello: Natasha Otero
Producer: Abrahamse & Meyer Productions
Venue: Artscape Arena, Cape Town, November 1 – 30, 2019
The Glass Menagerie has been staged with innovation and verve by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions with a brilliant ensemble cast.
The play is vividly imagined in an installation of fragmented glass which is whimsical and luminescent (it glows) and at the same time, it is emblematic of the shattered landscape of The Glass Menagerie.
Read on and find out why you should not miss seeing this production:
The Glass Menagerie, premiered in 1944 in Chicago. It was Tennessee Williams’ first success. It made him famous.
According to Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer – the producers of this production- the play was last staged professionally THIRTY years ago in Cape Town. Abrahamse directed. It was September, 1989. The venue was the Baxter Theatre and the cast featured Brenda Wood, Michelle Scott, Stephen Jennings and Geoffrey Hyland. Thirty years ago–yes, that is not a miss-print.
Chances are – if you live in Cape Town- unless you have watched a staging abroad- you have probably not seen the play- performed live on stage, produced by a professional theatre company. Now, is your opportunity to see this sumptuous production of this celebrated Tennessee Williams tragi-comedy.
Fiona Ramsay delivers a spectacular performance as the disappointed, coiffured Southern Belle, Amanda Wingfield who is living with her two adult children in a tenement in St Louis, Missouri. Ramsay, is as Brian van Rheede remarked to me, after the opening performance, the doyenne of South African theatre. Van Rheede is a noted Cape Town theatre maven. He is correct. Ramsay would be worth seeing in anything and in a play like this, in a production of this calibre, well, it’s a no brainer. Watch her in the scene where she audits her son’s table manners. Her withering looks of disdain and dismay crack through the veneer of cultivated Southern deportment. Priceless comedic drama as she puffs herself up and struts around, underpinned by self-deprecation, self-pity and loathing.
The entire company is superb. Jenny Stead plays the waif-like Laura, who has a physical disability as a result of a bout of polio and is mentally fragile. She arranges her collection of glass ornaments, plays music on a Victrola (a record player first marketed in 1906), does the domestic chores and steels herself to meet a Gentleman Caller to save her from the misery around her. Stead brings a luminosity to her performance. There is a sense of her being transparent; like a wraith. For instance as she moves from the dining room table to the living room couch, she unfolds her body, dragging her foot, she makes no sound and then she is somehow on that couch.
Matthew Baldwin imbues Tom, the son with a heady mix of longing and loathing for his family. He knows that he did/does (the play flits between present and past) the right thing in escaping the shackles of his family but his memories haunt and stalk him. He may have left physically but emotionally he is still trussed to the unit. Watch Baldwin’s facial expressions: This man is not a happy chappie. He masterfully conjures up Tom in all his incarnations – the school Tom, responsible family man Tom and the Tom who has left and looks back through the gaze of memory.
Marcel Meyer steps into the urbane role as The Gentleman Caller – potential suitor and escape agent. He is fabulous as the suave Gentleman Caller, Jim. As with all the protagonists, disappointment shadows his present. Laura remembers him from school days as a hot-shot athlete and actor. Now, he works in the shoe factory, as a clerk with Tom. But somehow, he comes across an individual who has made peace with himself. He wears a great suit (love Meyer’s design “three-piece grey double-breasted suit with a bowtie and period spectacles” – Meyer interview, see below) and is impeccably kitted out- his posture is flawlessly aligned.
Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer are known for their intensely conceptual work. They don’t simply insert characters into a set, against a backdrop/scenic cloth. The design (set, costumes, lighting, sound, music) is integral to the staging. Increasingly their sets are becoming more like installations – spaces, which the protagonists inhabit – rather than “act”. Tennessee Williams was very much against kitchen-sink realism in terms of design so they are working in response to his stage directions and comments. Their design approach as a company is about not going for the obvious. It is about transfiguring the commonplace.
In this staging of The Glass Menagerie, there is an inspired expression of imagery in the text – conveyed through the costumes, lighting, and music. The “set” is comprised of three platforms (dining room, living room and fire escape), suspended on stilts over a sea of glass fragments so there is a sense of the spaces floating – dangling in a world of memory, loss and longing. At the end of this review, see extracts from an interview with Meyer as to the conceptualisation of design. It is illuminating.
For instance, for his costumes, Meyer has kept to a monochrome palette – largely black and white which references the post-depression period in America- 1937 in St Louis, Missouri. The general vibe was bleak and that is conveyed through the costumes which invoke black and white films of the period.
Music is key to many Tennessee Williams plays and is an important leitmotif in this play. Abrahamse and Meyer have gone all out and not only commissioned Jaco Griessel to compose music for this production, but they have also engaged cellist Natasha Otero to play live on stage (or rather off-stage –on the mezzanine in the right wing of the theatre). Tom – the son/narrator – relates in the beginning of the play, that as he tells the story, the fiddler fiddles. In this production, it is a cellist. The music is a direct reference to the text.
I have read reviews of contemporary stagings of this play and cannot find mention of live accompaniment. The live music heightens the anxiety in the narrative. This is a bunch of angst laden people – jittery, skittish, on edge. The cellist cues into that sense of disjunction. As the characters speak, there are refrains of squeaking, jarring music – riffs of waltzes, jazz and other notes coming through. It is a lament; a howl; a melodic interlude. Laura plays the music left behind by her father, on the phonograph. It becomes part of the soundscape.
Reading reviews of productions abroad, the stagings come across as rather staid. There is nothing demure about this production. It is edgy; an apartment balancing precariously on stilts in a landscape of broken glass. Within the darkness, illumination and light bounces off the ornamental glass animals and sea of shattered glass, under the elevated platform of rooms. Faheem Bardien’s extensive lighting plot delineates the shifts in narrative and he plays with the reflections and refractions of light. Cut glass is beautiful but the shards are sharp and will cut you. It is also very seductive and conjures up a sense of fairy lights and perhaps fairground with thrills sparkling in the dark. Bardien brings all of that out with his design.
The play is biographical in parts, inspired by Williams’ family relationships which were very complex. His parents hated each other. They were constantly fighting. His sister had mental health issues and underwent a lobotomy. She ended up in an institution. It was dysfunction beyond dysfunction. In the essay in the programme for this production, it is noted that Williams said that his family had to move from their home in the South to a “congested apartment neighbourhood”. There was limited natural light. Below the flat, on the ground, there was the constant noise of cats and dogs fighting. To literally lighten up her situation, Williams’ sister kept the blinds up. She painted her furniture white, hung white curtains and arranged her collection of ornamental glass animals on shelves. The room gave off its own light and energy and Williams reflected that it was the only room in the apartment has he found “pleasant to enter”.
Williams has brought all that angst, anxiety, and claustrophobia into The Glass Menagerie, together with the image of the glass ornamental menagerie – which is fragile but it also is illuminating – reflecting light. We feel a palpable sense of everything closing in and we can understand how Amanda’s husband fled from this suffocating space. She has been left to fend for herself –something that she wasn’t brought up to do, as a Southern Belle. Sure, Amanda and Laura are framed in heteronormative terms. They need men to save them from their predicament. Laura is a “delicate flower”. She is like glass that can break. Only the kindness of a Gentleman Caller – of a man- can save her from this stultifying existence. Yeah, yeah, yeah. This play was written in 1937 and Williams is gazing very much at a sector of people who prescribed to these values. Many still do. Women are objects and are objectified in this play.
As a 2019 audience, we may cringe at their world views and the lack of agency of the women, but to reduce it to a gender discourse, crushes this beautiful, elegiac mediation on family; ties that bind us; history and memory. Beyond gender, it is about damaged people who feel powerless and who are trying to hang on to each other and not lose hope. Tom is as much a victim as the women. He has to be the Man and save them, while they look pretty and wait for Gentleman Callers. He exercises his agency and makes his exit. There is redemption in this story- at least- his story. It may not be nice that he flees but these are not ‘nice’ people.
All the characters were once special, successful in their own ways. They yearn for their youthful highs. Tennessee Williams battled with concept of success throughout his life and that comes across strongly in this play. Even when Williams was at the zenith of success, he existed in a perpetual sense of anguish, as to his sense of worth. When his plays were not well received, he was tormented by the lack of recognition.
Set in 1937, the period references in this production have been retained but it resonates in contemporary terms. Here is a cossetted woman. A posse of servants once attended to her needs and now she has lost her position of privilege. Laura is able to live at home because of her family privilege. It may be reduced circumstances but it is still a comfortable life. This production rings out loudly for me in terms of its referencing of White privilege in this country [South Africa]. It’s not easy for anyone to deal with mental and physical challenges but when you have the protection of privilege- even of it has been dialled back as with this family – you are a lot better off than others who do not have any benefits. Williams’ dialogue is deliciously wry and acerbic. It would be easy to create a comedy/tragedy of manners but with this production, the creative team and cast venture way beyond a surface interpretation of quotable lines. Do not miss.
Theatre ✈ travel advisory
Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, presented by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions is on at the Artscape Arena, Cape Town, November 1 – 30, 2019. Tickets cost R250. Book at Computicket.
Marcel Meyer reflects on The Glass Menagerie
Marcel Meyer reflects on The Glass Menagerie- staged November 2019 by Abrahamse & Meyer, Cape Town
TheCapeRobyn: Music has been especially composed for this production. Can you tell us about that and you went about conceptualising the music/sound scape – taking your cue, from the text?
Marcel Meyer: Music is such a pivotal part to Williams’ conception of this play. Right in the opening moments, Williams’ alter-ego, Tom Wingfield explains to the audience: “The play is memory…In memory everything seems to happen to music.” Jaco Griessel is an incredibly talented and smart young composer and theatre practitioner and it’s been wonderful to collaborate with him on this very special production. He has created a very moody and moving original score for solo cello. The cello in essence becomes a musical avatar for the character of Laura and adds additional depth and dimension to the poetic lyricism and musicality of the spoken text. The music is performed live at every performance by the brilliant young cellist Natasha Otero.
Part of Fred’s brief to Jaco was that he wanted certain themes in the music to illustrate how trapped the Wingfield family are in their lives. And so Jaco wrote certain of the themes with a limited range of notes – with the musical phrases trying to soar but then always dropping back down into the darker trapped theme.
In contrast to the fragile beauty of the cello music, Williams also calls for hot, swing music that can be distantly heard from the Paradise Dance Hall across the road from the Wingfield apartment. This music works contrapuntally to the dramatic situation created by Williams on stage. The swing music from the dance hall represents a world of escape and freedom outside the trapped confines of the Wingfield family’s small apartment. Williams is very specific in what kind of dances and music he wants to underscore specific scenes – For instance a sensual tango – while Tom and Amanda discuss how different Laura is from other girls. A waltz for Jim and Laura – and another waltz as the drama comes to a climax and the illusions of Laura and Amanda are shattered when they discover Jim is actually engaged to be married to another girl.
Another musical motif in the play is the Victrola that the father left behind. Laura plays her father’s old records over and over as a reminder of him.
TheCapeRobyn: Insights into set design and costumes? As a company, you have increasingly been using costuming symbolically and to invoke images in text so wondering about this pans out in this production?
Marcel Meyer: The entire colour scheme is grey, black and white for this production – to capture the bleakness of the depression era setting. The whole production has the look and feel of a 1930s black and white movie.
There are only three items of colour in the entire production. The inside of the Victrola is a deep royal blue. Williams often calls for Blue musical instruments in his plays. In A Streetcar Named Desire there is a Blue Piano [not a Blues Piano but an actual Blue coloured piano] in Camino Real he asks for music to be played on a Blue Guitar. In Williams’ understanding and symbolic use of colour – blue always represents a world of escape – music, sex, liquor. This is the case for both Laura and her father – Laura plays the old records to escape her trapped reality – the father has physically left and deserted the family. He has escaped to the blue world.
The next item of colour is the magician’s scarf that Tom got as a souvenir from Malvolio the Magician which he in turn gifts to Laura. Like the Blue Victrola – the coloured silk scarf is also a symbol of escape – of hope – of something more than the bleak existence the characters in this play find themselves trapped in.
The third and last item of colour are Amanda’s Jonquils [Daffodils]. They represent Amanda’s lost youth and the old south.
The set comprises of a series of floating platforms representing the fire-escape, the living room and the dining room of the Wingfield apartment. The platforms float over an installation of shattered glass and a string of dimly glowing lightbulbs.
The ‘backdrop’ for the set is a ‘curtain’ of naked lightbulbs – which at various stages can come to represent a variety of different things – sometimes they are stars – other times they represent the little lives of all the other people living in similar apartments in this congested tenement neighbourhood of St. Louis.
Because the play is a ‘Memory play’ only certain details in the set are ‘remembered’ ghostly details in white and pale grey like brick work in the fire escape or the parquet flooring and wallpaper in the dining room and a large carpet in the living room. These details have been painted with a ghost-like quality and just fade away into black.
Similarly, the costumes are styled in a variety of shades of grey, black and finally in act two – white.
I have attempted to reflect the characters personalities in the cut and look of their garments – for instance – I have dressed Laura in a very ‘plain’ looking 1930s day dress – but to illustrate her ‘otherness’ there are slight hints of violet in the floral patterning on her dress. The ‘plainness’ of her act one dress – helps to highlight her complete transformation into her act two costume when she is all dressed up for the gentleman caller. This dress is made of very old vintage silk chiffon trimmed with antique pale blue and white ribbon. The costume has a wonderful fragility about it.
Amanda has a grey housecoat at the top of the play – to show her being matronly and homely. She removes this house coat when she does her first speech about her faded past and her many gentleman callers – she reveals a simple but stylish grey 1930s day dress underneath – an attempt to keep of appearances of what was once her life even though she no longer moves in those financial or social circles.
One of the highlight costumes of any production of The Glass Menagerie is Amanda’s act two costume. It is supposedly the dress she wore when she was a young girl in the Deep South.
For this I have designed an Edwardian white dress with train. The dress is made of a light hammered satin overlaid with a delicate white chiffon. The dress is finished off with an overlaid jacket of embroidered tulle. It is a wonderfully striking look for her – she looks as if she’s stepped out of a southern equivalent of Downtown Abbey – an emissary from a world so different to her present situation in depression era St. Louis.
For the men – Jim (because of is aspirations of being promoted in the world) is dressed in a three-piece grey double-breasted suit with a bowtie and period spectacles. Tom is dressed in all grey – grey shirt, tie, and pants and a variety of grey accessories – grey knit jersey, grey sports jacket and at the start of play (before we flash back into memory) when we see him as a merchant seaman he has on a large black trench coat, grey woollen hat and scarf.
A note on: Abrahamse & Meyer Productions:
✔ This Cape Town based and internationally acclaimed company is headed up by Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer.
✔ The company is known for its innovative staging of works by Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare as well as other plays which come its way or plays which Abrahamse & Meyer are contracted to work on as freelancers. They have worked extensively at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town –as a company and as freelance artists.
✔ Each year, the company travels to the USA to stage productions of Tennessee Williams plays at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival– an annual festival which celebrates Williams’ work.
The festival tends to roll out a dual theme – for example – Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams was the theme for the 2017 edition. This year, 2019, Abrahamse & Meyer staged – in rep – Williams’ Night of the Iguana and Yukio Mishima’s Lady Aoi.
Meyer: “The entire season was sold out and played to standing ovations at every performance. Bess Rowan will be writing about the production for THE ANNUAL TENNESSEE WILLIAMS REVIEW – which is the leading journal for all things Tennessee Williams in the USA.”
✔Tennessee Williams Hotel Plays by Abrahamse & Meyer
Williams spent much of his time in hotel rooms. He wrote over a dozen short plays set in hotel rooms. Other plays featured or referenced something to do with a hotel – a bar for example. These plays have become known as ‘The Hotel Plays’.
Theatre makers have been selecting two to three of the short hotel plays and have been presenting them in hotel settings. Many of producers The Hotel Plays, present them as “immersive theatre”.
Working within the ambit of immersive/site responsive theatre, Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer have been staging “Hotel Plays” at the historic Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town [built as the country estate of Lady Anne Barnard in 1799].
In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel was presented this year (2019) in the bar of The Vineyard Hotel – adjacent to its indoor pool and gym. The décor was themed Japanese as was the menu.
This was the 3rd edition of the Hotel Plays at The Vineyard. Abrahamse and Meyer skipped 2018 due to the water crisis (drought) in Cape Town.
In 2016 and 2017, plays were staged in hotel suites. In 2016, we sat in the hotel suites (two different plays in two sites) and watched the plays being enacted out in the beds in the rooms. Room service interrupted with a delivery of a meal. We became immersed in the narrative. It’s creepy and voyeuristic and utterly thrilling,
In addition to the short Hotel Plays, there are longer Williams’s plays which are set in hotels. The list includes The Night of the Iguana and Sweet Bird of Youth. The former was staged by Abrahamse and Meyer in 2019 at The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival but the production has not been staged in South Africa. Sweet Bird of Youth was staged at Provincetown and in SA.
✔Shakespeare by Abrahamse & Meyer
Abrahamse & Meyer are regular invitees to the International Shakespeare Festival in Romania. The company dazzles with its exciting approach the Bard, which involves a pared down cast (multiple roles played by actors), within a conceptual framework. For example for a production of Hamlet – six male actors performed – playing the male and female parts – as would have been the situation in Shakespeare’s day. The production was Abrahamse and Meyer’s tribute to a performance of Hamlet in 1608, on The Red Dragon – an East India merchant ship – which was anchored off the East Coast of South Africa. This staging– with sailors playing all the roles -is widely regarded as the first recorded public performance of a Shakespearean play outside of Europe. This Hamlet – the homage to The Red Dragon has been staged internationally and in South Africa.
✔ Family Theatre Festival at Canal Walk by Abrahamse & Meyer
The annual theatre festival at Canal Walk was launched in 2000 with Abrahamse & Meyer commissioned by Canal Walk to stage musicals for young audiences in a pop-up theatre, erected in the centre court. Past productions have included musical versions of The Little Mermaid, The Jungle Book, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Aladdin, Hansel & Gretel, The Frog Prince, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. The annual show is not only about bringing theatre to young audiences but also arises funds for organisations like Stop Hunger Now, The Red Cross Children’s Hospital and this year proceeds will go to the LEAP Science and Maths Schools.