Disappointment. It is a word I hate, for it among the many words a critic may use, cuts particularly deeply. But I fear it is the only word I can summon up to describe STAG’s Mainstage this semester. One of Tennessee Williams most noted works (though I am more partial to A Streetcar Named Desire), The Glass Menagerie is a memory play based on Williams own early life, in which hapless narrator Tom talks about growing up in St Louis, Missouri with his ageing southern belle mother, Amanda and his sick younger sister Laura. A play with a lot of history behind it, many production’s throw themselves into the part, creating a vibrant and compelling look at life in the 1930s. But STAG’s production, though there was little overtly wrong with it, does not measure up to the notoriety Williams commands. It hits most nails on the head, but with so little force as insufficient to drive any of them home. It was with a heavy heart that I left the theatre, realising what might well be my last article would be one that could not, in good conscience, heap praise upon what was a drastically flawed and ill-advised idea.
We are presented with a stage featuring a divan, a dining table and a modesty screen, amongst other accoutrements. This was my first signal that something was off, as it looked very much like they had simply put everything that looked vaguely period that they could find onstage, failing to realise that a high-rise flat in urban Missouri would be unlikely to have a modesty screen and, if it did, it wouldn’t be in the living/dining room. But more than this. Williams wrote very detailed directions into The Glass Menagerie about how the play was to be set and performed. In terms of performance STAG followed some, but not all of his instructions (which was a mistake I shall get to later) and in terms of set, they appeared to have followed none. Now, Williams called for a multi-level set, which STAG will argue they couldn’t have pulled off. I direct them to my previous mainstage review of Boudica, where I stated that if you cannot do a play the way it is meant to be done, you should reconsider doing it at all. I am not opposed to re-interpretation and re-contextualisation of plays, but they must be done well and with purpose. This rather student-theatre-y set was topped off with clusters of paper cranes in its corners (for reasons no-one could explain, I first thought they where meant to be dry-rot, but they were origami cranes framed by shiny paper) and a door, which was in fact a door frame with a narrow strip of wood and a door handle on it. Opinion was mixed on this item, I personally thought it looked silly, others thought it was a good way to have a door onstage. My main issue with it was that characters kept resting their hands on the top of the strip of wood, meaning that they accept, in the universe of the play, that it is just a strip of wood, not an actual door. Overall, the set offered very little to improve the show and therein lies the issue, as with the paper cranes; they looked interesting, but why where they there? Likewise, why have a door like that, instead of a normal door? This is why I felt these things problematic because they served no discernible purpose and if they serve no purpose, they’re just not needed.
‘But, surely you don’t go to student theatre for the set design, but for the acting?’ I hear you cry. And yes, STAG should use the Mainstage to showcase their large pool of actors. Which is why so many people were surprised at Glass Menagerie’s choosing, as it has only 4 characters (to put that in perspective, there were 20-minute plays in the STAG Nights festival that had larger casts). I am not criticising the cast size (much), but I feel that for a society as large as STAG, such a small cast for such a large show was a lapse in judgement. It is not helped by the fact that, in the whole show, only one actor really stood out and they were only in the second half of the play. Serious praise should go to Liam Grimaldi for his portrayal of Jim. The other actors, again not bad, where not stellar either (I think part of it comes from Liam being the only actor not needing to concentrate on maintaining an American accent, having one naturally). The character of Tom was decent enough, but superbly uninspiring, not emoting hugely during any of his lengthy monologues. Laura, again, not bad by any stretch, but not as good as she (nor, as I know, the actor) could have been. Amanda I felt was the worst offender, as the character is specified by Williams as being larger than life, verging on hysterical half the time. Even the moments she is supposed to be angry, I felt were bereft of emotion and that was the issue overall. I felt nothing for these characters, as they inspired no feelings within me. Jim did, but his character is not meant to be liked, as he ends with revealing, after dancing and sharing a kiss with Laura, that he is engaged to someone else. When Tom ended his final monologue, about how he left and never came back, my thoughts were not so much ‘oh, that poor family’, as ‘oh, thank God it’s over’.
Are these things easy to say? No. Are they nice to say? Not even remotely. But I cannot help but feel that STAG, in choosing a play such as this, with only 4 characters and a lot of stage direction, which was mostly ignored, brought it upon themselves. I could go on, about how the decision to keep the direction of miming knives, forks and plates looked silly to people not familiar with the play and, to those that were, like myself, raise the question of why not keep to all the direction, instead of just what was easy? Likewise, the use of projections, in place of Williams original magic lantern slides. Back then, fantastical and exciting. Today; common, derivative and distracting (I could also say how bad the costuming was, but I’ve long given up my attempts to get STAG to take costuming seriously). It all leads back to one of the roots of the problem; if you’re going to do a play such as this, you should either do all the direction as written or none of it. Simply doing some and then playing on the old ‘we’re student theatre, we can’t afford a multi-level stage etc.’ simply proves that STAG still lacks decent judgement in its play choices. There were some saving graces, such as Liam’s performance and the live music (which I enjoyed and felt should have been used more than it was), but overall the play was a sponge cake with no flavour (or, as a friend remarked to me, the Glass Meh-nagerie). Overall, much like with One Man, Two Guv’nors a year ago, the issue is not whether the play was bad or not (though there is little to say otherwise), it is simply that STAG should not have chosen it at all. It felt like a show that had had more and more things brought into it, all in pursuit of trying to justify what was blatantly and from the outset a very flawed idea. It is my firm hope that STAG may learn from this and move forward accepting their limitations and making a better choice next time.
– Michael Cartledge, Critic-at-Large
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