Captions tell the story;Set play;Theatre

5th March 1999 at 00:00
The Glass Menagerie. by Tennessee Williams. Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.

For director Andrew Manley, Tennessee Williams' 1944 memory play is not the elegiac piece so often presented. Tom Wingfield (Daniel Copeland), the narrator, closely resembles the young author; both are driven and pursued by guilt and the play is an exorcism by a writer who, like his narrator, walked out on his family.

In the play, Williams's sister Rose, who underwent a full-frontal lobotomy in 1937, becomes the shy, limping Laura (Sophie Bold). And the overpowering Amanda (Fleur Chandler) with her memories of a southern belle upbringing, recalls the author's mother.

Manley accepts there's something to be said for Amanda. `The play's (partly) about survival and Amanda's a great survivor with an enormous sense of endurance. But this doesn't excuse her emotional blackmail of her son and daughter. At least Amanda ends up comforting her daughter. Tom does nothing in the moment of his sister's greatest vulnerability, except leave home to pursue the larger theme that hangs behind the play, the American Dream of material success bringing happiness.

It's the fourth character, the "Gentleman Caller", Jim O'Connor (Glyn Dilley), who reflects this theme. To some extent Jim is the straight man from outside the Wingfield family but he has his own problems; the golden boy going sour, not achieving the life of the Dream.

Menagerie was the first success for an author whose stagecraft is much more visually based than stage productions and films have often allowed.

"He was striving for a different sort of theatre - he called it 'plastic' - and we must now attempt to redress the over-emphasis of the past in doing him realistically," says Manley.

That's why he insists on making much of the captions Williams calls for. Theatrically these projected words recall Brecht, though Manley says the influence was more likely silent films and magic lantern shows.

Yet the play's main visual image, Laura's collection of glass animals, is often too small to be noticeable. In Ipswich, Michael Spencer's designs will incorporate her glass menagerie into the overall staging.

Later in life Williams quoted early 20th century German Expressionist Theatre, a highly visual form, as an influence. He also mentioned two writers as influential: D H Lawrence and Chekhov. Chekhov's last play (The Cherry Orchard) famously uses an abstract sound effect, (a distant "breaking string") to represent the old social order falling apart. And what sound effect accompanies the Wingfields' world collapsing? "There is an ominous cracking sound in the sky".

Timothy Ramsden March 11-April 3. Tickets 01473 253725

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