The glide of a violin in the corner, used so often for comic relief, sometimes uncovers the dint of a real emotion and similarly, straddling a thin line, The Glass Menagerie continues to grapple with its material in little rewarding ways that makes it a compulsive watch, flawed but poignant.
When we walk into Rajit Kapur’s new production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, there is a polished austerity on display. A sparse but tasteful living room is sprawled before us, but the universe of the original setting — St Louis, Missouri in 1937 during The Great Depression, with its miseries and privations — isn’t immediately evoked. In Mr Kapur’s version, a fire escape, sometimes the only semblance of a porch afforded by such living quarters, becomes a dreamy podium for a busking violinist (Anaar Desai) who performs charming musical accents for the play’s more agitated moments.
Now and again, we are reminded of the worlds (and freedoms) beyond — the much referenced docks where the play’s leading man, Tom Wingfield (Jim Sarbh), finds solace in drink or the movies that provides him vicarious escape from a stifling household replete with domineering mother and mixed-up sister — even as the homeyness still lets on a sense of the unspectacular tragedies that would soon inform the ordinary lives of our protagonists.
An early title for the play, one of Williams’ earliest successes, was The Gentleman Caller, alluding to the odd courtship ritual where eligible men were counted on to call upon ‘powdered and perfumed’ single women at their homes if they were to have any chance of a future of household and hearth. The fear of penurious spinsterhood always loomed large. This Indian production initially attempted to transport its principals to Mazgaon, near Mumbai’s own fishing docks, before copyright concerns sent them right back to St Louis. Which is why we cannot at first access the characters and place them in any specific cultural context. Mr Sarbh performs his opening soliloquy with a pleasant lilt of his characteristic brogue, whereas Amrita Puri, as his sister Laura, phones in with a more laid-back Mumbai twang, and reliable powerhouse Shernaz Patel, as Amanda Wingfield, the mother, delivers her salvos in a generic American accent that has the ring of authenticity about it without really being local to any milieu. This diversity of tongues is part of what are the usual quibbles with English theatre in India, but we can soon see past this.
The stiltedness melts away as Mr Sarbh leads us to the play’s comic heart like a Pied Piper with a winning smile and a supple physicality around which he can pivot a performance that is light on its feet, even if it is a particularly overwrought sequence (a family scuffle that’s all sound and fury and violin riffs) that sets it up. With his angular jaw and gaunt frame, and older than his years, Mr Sarbh gives us an accurate sense of Tom’s world-weary demeanor, but for all his flair and articulation, the more reflective moments lack the urgency of his character’s seething angst and any sense of his being at the end of his tether. In many ways the play marks the birth of an actor who can now shoulder a play most certainly, even if he cannot yet carry the weight of the world that lies so heavily on his character, displaying more tolerance and fondness for his airless circumstances (thriving even) than warranted by the text. Perhaps that is because he plays off Ms Patel, whose brusque brightness at entry gives way to an endearing and warm persona (despite Amanda’s many foibles and her handwringing delusion). When she purses up her mouth bitterly, and sputters out her words, in some measure we see flashes of vanity thwarted, and the sour tongue of a woman who hasn’t played her hand particularly well in the marriage market (which explains the blown-up photograph of Benjamin Gilani, stand-in for the dysfunctional unit’s absent patriarch, hanging on the archway incongruously, almost like a distracting inside reference). In Ms Patel’s turn there is that rare felicity of an actor who arrives at her character during the course of a performance and then never lets go, the joy and radiance of a treasured role giving her wings, even if her accumulated goodwill prevents us from reaching into her contradictions.
There is an interiority that an observer yearns for when you encounter a character coded as ‘special’, and Ms Puri, the most malleable of the three actors, brings us to that point with an almost wordless sincerity. The play makes willing voyeurs of us (and indeed, it is based on Williams’ own troubled family), but the intimacy of the Prithvi space (where the play opened as part of the Prithvi Theatre Festival) creates an expectation that is sometimes not met even if your appetite for stargazing is satisfied by being in thrall to a film actor (the doyenne or the ingénue, take your pick) in such close proximity. Although with Ms Puri’s character, that opportunity to draw us in certainly existed, but not quite exploited. We are not really allowed to be privy to what lies within such a person — her ‘menagerie’ of miniature glass animals, fragile to the touch but full of residual meanings not quite unearthed, and its crown jewel, the unicorn, a potent metaphor that remains under-utilized.
Instead she is saddled (as we are) with a supercilious ‘gentleman caller’ in the second act, who kisses the would-be prospect charitably, but refuses to take her on in a full-blooded sense. Even as he holds forth in a counsellor’s tongue (1930s pearls of wisdom that amount to the slightest pop psychology of our times) trying to crack open her introversion, he expects fire from glass, hoping that her fragility is perhaps just a façade to ward the world away, and underneath those layers of old-fashioned clothing is hidden the semblance of an easy woman. Or easier, in any case. With his unfeeling solicitude, Jim (a one-dimensional Cabir Maira) effectively ‘others’ Laura and consigns a complex (and fleetingly mythical) creature into becoming the object of our collective pity, when in reality, at the centre of this dysfunctional universe, it is she who holds the secret to a dear truth that is perhaps more uplifting than debilitating, contrary to the evidence pointed out to us at every turn. There is a beautiful moment when the lights go out, and Ms Puri and Mr Maira sit on floor-cushions, her visage tenderly illuminated by candles (and the unobtrusive spill of low lights at the edge of the stage), a gentle reminder of the subtle triumphs that the play could engineer if Laura wasn’t given only to the crutches of social ineptitude, a shuffling gait (that conveys no real impairment) and breathless accounts of a schoolyard crush.
It must be noted here that the play performs to one side for the most part, and the good folk in ‘restricted view’ seats (on the left) are only ever looking over the backs and shoulders of actors, which, no doubt, possess an eloquence of their own but given our bias for unmitigated frontal spectacle, we cannot fully appreciate this lucky chance to eavesdrop in such an authentic fashion. Although there is a cleanness to Mr Kapur’s direction — an exactness and a lack of ostentation — there is also the tacit reluctance to extract more from the play’s unspoken foreboding that sometimes finds expression on this staging’s palette in other prescient ways. Standing at the doorway, unsure of whether to ‘fall in love with long distances’ like his father, Tom casts a shadow on the backdrop that evokes, in silhouette, the wooden gallows of the time. Elsewhere, the sanitary white curtains remind us of the sectioning walls of a clinic, evoking a subtle sense of the instability that Laura and to some extent, Amanda, bring to the mêlée. Ultimately the lack of undercurrents doesn’t undo the goodwill earned by the play’s winning moments. Even if the overbearing claustrophobia comes and goes in little flashes it is there. The flourishes delight us, but if there isn’t anything simmering under the surface, that may well be because of the specter of human optimism that holds indefinite sway over the fortunes of men. The glide of a violin in the corner, used so often for comic relief, sometimes uncovers the dint of a real emotion and similarly, straddling a thin line, The Glass Menagerie continues to grapple with its material in little rewarding ways that makes it a compulsive watch, flawed but poignant.