In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner speaks to Atri Banerjee, director of The Glass Menagerie, which was due to open at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. She also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
The revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Exchange in Manchester was to be directed by Atri Banerjee, who won best director at The Stage Debut Awards 2019 for his production of Hobson’s Choice. The show was due to run from June 5 to July 4, with a press night on June 9.
“There is a temptation to do Glass Menagerie in a wispy sort of way because it’s a memory play, but for me it feels more urgent,” says Banerjee. “Williams wrote it in 1944 but set it in 1935 in a world that is changing and spiralling into crisis and it tells of a family in crisis.”
Banerjee vividly recalls the first time that he read the play as a teenager in his grandmother’s house in Calcutta during the monsoon season with power cuts causing the lights to flicker on and off.
“I loved it at once. My own family history of mental health tells me how hard it is to look after the people we love. My maternal great-grandmother had a lobotomy in the 1950s, so I was compelled by the story of Williams’ sister Rose, who was the inspiration for the character of Laura in the play. In staging it, I wanted to reclaim the play for Rose and honour her story.”
After a racist attack on him last year, the day before he started rehearsals for Hobson’s Choice, Banerjee also identifies with Tom and the trauma of being “caught in a loop of having to tell the same story over and over and trying to make sense of it”. Banerjee went public on the attack after winning the Debut Award, saying he thought it was important to do so because he had the platform to speak out.
When I was beaten up because of the colour of my skin it felt like a reduction of that identity
“I had a multicultural upbringing; I was proud of the plurality of my identity, so when I was beaten up because of the colour of my skin it felt like a reduction of that identity.”
Who was involved?
Rosanna Vize was the designer, Ben and Max Ringham were on sound design, Lee Curran was lighting designer and Jenny Ogilvie was the movement director. The cast included Joshua James as Tom, Rhiannon Clements as Laura, Oseloka Obi as Jim O’Connor and Geraldine Somerville as Amanda Wingfield. Somerville first appeared at the Exchange in 1989, also in The Glass Menagerie, playing the role of Laura.
How far did the team get?
“We were finalising the design. It wasn’t set in a period and the design has elements of the surreal that underline the themes of fantasy and reality in the play. When the theatre shutdown happened, I was at the Royal Exchange directing the remount of West Side Story. The last thing the cast did together before leaving the building was to sing Somewhere for the theatre staff.”
Will the show be rescheduled?
“I hope we will be able to pick up where we left off. But the world will be different. What will audiences want? We don’t know, but I don’t think it will just be comedies. I think theatre is at its most powerful when it is fulfilling its civic role. It’s why I really hope that one day I can run a building. When theatres reopen they must tell the stories of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities affected, and the frontline NHS staff.”
What is Banerjee doing in lockdown?
“I have been reading Tennessee Williams’ essay The Catastrophe of Success and thinking about the future. What happened to me last year and the current political situation has sharpened my sense of what the theatre is for. People have talked about the trauma of Covid-19 and theatre has a part to play in that recovery.”
A play that did open this week six years ago was Anne Washburn’s ‘post-electric’ play Mr Burns, which had a press night at London’s Almeida Theatre on June 12, 2014. It was directed by Robert Icke, designed by Tom Scutt, and the cast included Justine Mitchell, Annabel Scholey and Jenna Russell.
The play was in three acts, with the latter two set seven years and 75 years after the first begins. In a not-too-distant future, the US has suffered an apocalyptic disaster, perhaps part nuclear meltdown and part pandemic, which has wiped out 99% of the population. For that reason alone, Washburn’s play is worth remembering
in these times.
Some of the survivors huddle around a campfire telling stories and trying to piece together an episode from series five of The Simpsons, a spoof of the 1962 movie Cape Fear, and the subsequent Martin Scorsese remake almost 30 years on.
At the heart of this disaster movie for the stage was the question: what is it that we salvage from the wreckage and what are the stories that survive: Homer or Homer Simpson? The survivors become a troupe of travelling players performing the episode endlessly, and 75 years later it has taken on the status of myth for their descendants in what has become a game of cultural Chinese whispers.
“Mr Burns subtly dramatises the process of cultural transmission in a mass media era. In Washburn’s post-apocalyptic world, the works of Joseph Conrad, William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams apparently survive only in episodes of The Simpsons punningly titled Bart of Darkness, Much Apu about Nothing and A Streetcar Named Marge,” wrote Mark Lawson in the Guardian. Not everyone was convinced. The Stage critic Mark Shenton gave it just one star, declaring “that if this is the future of theatre after the apocalypse, I’d rather not survive myself”.
But of course Mr Burns seems all the more pertinent now as a play that celebrates the human need to tell stories in the face of disaster, the way memory distorts those stories and fragments, and how the stories and cultural artefacts most valued now may not be those that endure in the future, particularly one where there is an absence of light and hope.