Classic play The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams gets the Pangdemonium treatment. Critics Matthew Lyon, Nabilah Said and Naeem Kapadia discuss more in the latest ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast.
In this latest ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast, Matthew Lyon, Nabilah Said and Naeem Kapadia discuss the recent production The Glass Menagerie, written by Tennessee Williams and presented by Pangdemonium. The cast comprised Catherine Grace Gardner, Jamil Schulze, Inch Chua and Salif Hardie, and the play was directed by Tracie Pang.
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Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello everyone and welcome to the ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast. Today we are talking about Pangdemonium’s recent production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. The Glass Menagerie is a classic American memory play, where a character called Tom Wingfield looks back on his life and the relationship he had with his suffocating mother, as well as his painfully shy sister who spends her time seeking solace in a collection of glass ornaments, the titular glass menagerie.
And yeah, it’s an interesting play, because we’ve not really seen a classic text being staged in Singapore, without it being modernised or adapted in any way, for a long time. So for me, I think it was quite interesting seeing this production being realised—I think after a two-year period, because Pangdemonium has been wanting to do this for a long time, but obviously because of the challenges of the pandemic, they’ve not been able to.
This stars Jamil Schulze, Salif Hardie, Inch Chua and Catherine Grace Gardner. So maybe, Matt, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what your initial impressions were of The Glass Menagerie?
Matt Lyon (ML): Well, I guess the initial impressions are… the set, the lighting: beautiful. Beautifully done. I saw the Broadway production with Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto and they went for a slightly more stark version with a very tall iron fire escape and teals and pinks and things. But here we had this dusty kind of bamboo aesthetic—it managed to be saturated without being vivid, so that you got a sense of the richness of the memories that we’re seeing, but also that some of their freshness has gone off. I liked the little touch of having slightly tilting flooring—not so much that you always see it, but just so that you occasionally think ‘oh, that floor is tilted.’ And having all the weight of the windows suspended and looking down on the stage (it’s set in the tenements of a Midwestern city in America). Just really, really effective design work, I really loved it. Nabilah?
Nabilah Said (NS): I really love the themes of this play, and how especially the design brought out those themes very effectively. I mean, it actually says it’s a memory play in the script itself. And things like how the set had serrated edges. So you see, this imperfect memory of Tom and the windows with projections on them: old-timey American movies scenes? It was just really, really beautiful. And the themes that I especially liked were the idea of the distortion of the American dream, or just these people who are trying to live a life that they want, but they’re trapped behind glass almost. To me they were like the figures that were trapped in the glass menagerie that was actually present on stage. And for me those themes – and I guess the writing really – were what really took me in. But I felt that then when you talk about acting and performances… that’s where I think it really fell short for me.
NK: Yeah, I think I just want to echo the same sentiments, I think it was so nice to just see that fully realised set by Eucien Chia, who’s obviously a frequent collaborator with Pangdemonium and did a fantastic set for their last production, The Mother, as well. And it’s really just this idea of a space suspended almost in place and time, and I liked the glass shards that were around the space as well. There was a lot of beauty in terms of the design, which was again accentuated with the sound and the lighting and the multimedia.
ML: James Tan’s lighting especially was very sensitive for this…
NK: Beautiful. And then, Genevieve Peck’s projections of all those old-time Hollywood stills. I think it generated a beautiful landscape. But then, to go back to your point Nabilah, I think it resulted in the cast having to follow in the footsteps of that beautiful space. And I think for me, the acting experience unfortunately was a rather mixed one. I think it was just the tone in which the various actors inhabited the roles. And so for example, we have Inch Chua who plays Laura in an almost ethereal manner. She’s a thin, wispy character who speaks barely above a whisper—she doesn’t really have a lot of physicality about her, almost fading away into the background until that scene towards the end where she has that near-romantic moment with the gentleman caller. And then contrasted with that, you have the Tom character played by Jamil Schulze, who is brash and loud and has these shouting matches with the mother, and almost plays it a little like a stand-up comedian at times, which felt a bit out of step with the sister, and later on with the gentleman caller and the mother. I think they just weren’t really in step.
ML: Yeah, this is a play which I think operates within a certain tonal range. Like if it’s the orchestra, it’s the strings and not the brass. If it’s a painting, it’s blues and there aren’t any yellows. And I think that what Tracie is so good at doing when she directs contemporary productions, is finding the absolute maximum digital contrast ratio where your brand new TV can do the whitest whites and the blackest blacks. And this play just doesn’t need that. Because if you think of something like how Late Company, (which they did quite well recently) was structured, it’s got moments which are genuinely funny; it’s got real confrontations; it’s got sadness… It’s doing drama AND comedy AND tragedy: it’s all about the “ands”. And when you do have the darkest darks and the brightest brights in that kind of play, it works beautifully.
But this isn’t that – this is a Vincent van Gogh painting, it’s done with a very certain palette in a very impressionistic style. And so you’ve got people like Inch Chua, whose performance is a very controlled, impressionistic swoon: her speech was a little bit closer to music, and her movement was a little bit closer to dance. And when you’re contrasting that with someone like Jamil Schulze, who was just doing whatever the moment requires: if you can get a laugh out of this line, get a laugh out of this line; if you can shout this line, shout this line. Well A), I don’t think you should use all of that tonal range, because I think it takes you away from the sweep and the tone of what the play is trying to say. And B), if you’re doing that with Jamil, you have to do it with the rest of the cast as well. So I found the direction had submitted to the temptations of doing what it could in the moment, and not what it should for the benefit of the piece.
NS: I don’t know whether it’s also in the writing where the characters are not all written in an equally strong way. So I do feel that the actor playing the mother had a lot of tools at her disposal, which helped her, and ultimately she gave a really good performance. It was very strong. She felt like she kind of belonged in that play. And obviously, some of it is cultural specificity. But I also feel that that character was allowed to be broad and was allowed to be dramatic, and it wasn’t—
ML: By cultural specificity, I suppose you’re referring to Catherine Grace Gardner being American?
NS: Yeah, just being American and being able to nail that accent. I’m not sensitive to accents, but it felt very authentic. But I kind of feel like with Jamil Schulze, for example, going so big and broad for all of that two and a half hours was just… it wasn’t what the moment needed, and it wasn’t what the world of the play needed. And maybe that’s why something like what Inch was doing just felt controlled, and it wasn’t too much and… I mean, I don’t think Inch’s portrayal was fully to my taste…
ML: You were saying earlier in our pre-discussion that you couldn’t believe that Tom, played by Jamil Schulze, was a poet.
NS: No, no! I mean, they kept saying he was a poet, but I was like, he does not have a poet’s temperament…
NK: I mean, I felt he was at times closer to Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire rather than this eloquent poetic character that Tom Wingfield is supposed to be, because he’s kind of like the Tennessee Williams character. I wanted that slight differentiation between him at the start as a narrator and him in the play as a character. And then towards the end, when he finally comes out and tiptoes around that space, and then looks back on Laura, and talks about blowing out the candles and that famous closing speech, I’m like, why did you wait so long to move around?
I think again, I was wondering: you have this beautiful space at your disposal, which suspends the Wingfield home in this literal bubble surrounded by glass… Why do you not use that more to underscore this memory and the fact that this is a hazy space which you’re looking back on. I think it was again a mix of direction choices and also the way the actors portrayed the roles, just giving in to the moment, rather than thinking of it in terms of a harmonious orchestra.
ML: Well, yeah. Also, if we’re talking about harmony, Jamil Schulze could not stay in the same accent. At all. It was all over the place. And Nabilah, you say you’re not sensitive to accents? I am. And it’s just like someone playing not only a wrong note on the piano (because maybe that turns into jazz), but a different wrong and badly tuned note each time. I’m not quite sensitive enough to the nuances to know whether Inch Chua’s accent was exactly right for the time and place, but it was consistent. And when she says “Eh”, it comes out as “Eh” the next time and not as “Ah”, or whatever: the phonemes recurred. But with Jamil Schulze, the “Eh” could be “Ah” or “Oh”—it was going to come back different every time, and it just throws you out of believing that this is a real person.
And to be fair, it’s a very, very difficult thing to do. And it’s the kind of thing where, as a director, should you even ask for this level of cultural specificity, when probably you’re not going to be able to get it? Salif Hardie’s accent seemed to me to be quite consistent, and certainly non-distracting—but it wasn’t an early-20th-century Irish American accent as it should have been; it was closer to a rather more modern African American accent. And okay, if that’s the accent he can do, that’s the closest he can get? Sure. But it does raise the question of why bother with the accent anyway, if you’re not going to manage the cultural specificity? My colleague Sean Tobin just directed a production of this play with students, and he didn’t insist on accents. And, of course, you lose something… but what you lose is a certain number of keys on the piano whose notes you then simply don’t play. And what you remove is the danger of hitting the wrong, badly tuned keys all the time.
NK: It’s again back to the point about how the set, the design, all of the technical elements just created these wonderful contours—
ML: Costume as well.
NK: Yes, I think that’s a very good point I really should talk about—
NS: (We do want to talk about the costumes!)
NK: —Leonard Augustine Choo’s costumes. Because again, it was just such a beautiful display of period detail, from the pastel dresses worn by Laura; to that frankly rather hideous dress that Amanda, the mother, wears, which is indicative of this woman stuck in the past with her 17 gentleman callers and not wanting to move on; to that boxy 1940s suit that the gentleman caller wears, which is just a little bit big for him. And somehow he feels a little diminished in it, but—
ML: Really good choice.
NK: But still so sharp and finely pressed. And then the dishevelled look of Tom, the man who works in the shoe factory and chafes against his mundane life. So the costumes did a beautiful job of accentuating the characters. But again the performances seemed to colour outside the lines of that, because they were kind of going all over the place, as you mentioned, in terms of their tone and their range.
And I think an important point is that all these rich themes simmering in the text, that’s what hasn’t changed in 75 years, rather than Pangdemonium drawing all these frankly rather far-fetched parallels about how this play, being set in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and the Great Depression, is not too dissimilar to the current situation of us coming out from the pandemic, and the Ukraine crisis. I don’t even think of it like that; I just appreciate it as a piece of classic theatre with universal themes about human beings dealing with everyday situations: love, loss, disappointment, and I just kind of go with that.
NS: I do feel that there are a lot of audiences, maybe the younger audiences, who do feel like this play may not be very relevant. I was just looking at the gender roles, for example, at how they portrayed Laura as being this shell of a woman because she is “crippled”, right? Just how the idea of a character with a disability, for example, that there are a lot of contemporary plays that deal with that so much better. And Matt and me also think that we heard the N-word being said, as well, and kind of—
ML: Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did.
NS: We were kind of talking about like, “Oh, was that something that they had to do? Or was that a choice that they made?” And I’m more interested in how a theatre company is dealing with that, even if they choose to be authentic and not to change anything, I’d rather see that in the programme notes than making a stretch about the play being about the Ukrainian war. So for me, I’m like, what’s the value of a contemporary theatre company doing a play like this? I mean, you can be authentic, but what are you bringing to the table as well?
ML: I think there is an issue in there, deeply in the play, that can and should be excavated, which does have some relevance to today. But they didn’t do it. Tom’s thing is he’s never at home, which his mother wants him to be, because he’s out at the movies. And he’s not at the movies. She states early on “Well, you’re not at the movies because they don’t run from midnight till three in the morning.” So what else is he out doing? And if you know a little bit about Tennessee Williams, he was gay in a time when it was very, very difficult to be so, and I think it’s by no means an original reading of this play that Tom is out at night getting blackout drunk so that he can overcome his societally instilled but long-ingrained guilt about having sex with men—and then probably having sex with a lot of men, and coming home and creating this euphemism that he’s “out at the movies”.
And that’s in the subtext, but it was not in this performance. And there’s a line at the end when he leaves his mother for the final time where he says, “I’m going out—and not to the movies.” And that should be laden with confronting her with the truth of what he’s been doing. Which she knows! They both know they know!
There’s an earlier part when she confronts him about going out to the movies, and he’s listing all the things that he could be doing: he could be a mafia hitman, he could be doing all these things, which of course today we realise are so far more evil than the innocent act of just being gay. He can say he’s doing those things, but he can’t say he’s gay. And that is something that in Singapore, people still find themselves experiencing. People are not necessarily able to come out at work or to their families. And that kind of agreed-upon silence, of the euphemism of the Singaporean parents saying, “Oh, are you staying over at your friend’s again?” You know, that’s still happening. And bring that out, because that’s actually in there! Whereas the Ukraine conflict, as far as I can tell, is not.
NK: No, I think that is such an important point as well, because I think the play is about Tennessee Williams and his life. And I think it’s such a contemporary issue that a company like Pangdemonium, which has done plays… In fact, I think Tango, a play they did a few years ago, was about gay parenthood, and they’ve tackled this issue several times in their productions over the years. To use a theme like that and then draw a little bit of relevance—that would have been far better, I think.
NS: Because I—that flew over my head, actually.
NK: Same same, I think—
ML: It simply wasn’t in this production.
NK: But it’s something that I think could have added so much more colour, really.
ML: Yeah. Oh, we haven’t said much about Salif Hardie, and I think we wanted to.
NK: Yeah, Salif Hardie. Now he comes in only in that final part, because we’ve had more than an hour of these three Wingfield characters. And he comes in, and I have to say, I actually was really taken by his performance. I mean, he’s charming, he does a fairly consistent accent, he is sort of good looking and kind of warms up the space a lot. So I think I really was quite happy to see his performance in this show. I mean, I haven’t seen him in a lot of things in Singapore, but I think it’s fair to say that this was definitely one of the better things I’ve seen him in, and I was quite happy with his chemistry with Inch Chua.
Because you know how this is going to turn out: you know it’s going to be a crushing disappointment at the end, but you almost believe that something is going to happen, and I think that is the beauty about it. How he is this person who obviously had his heyday in high school, but he wants to relive that, and in the end, he has to let them down and, there’s just— I felt quite moved in that scene and the way it came out, even though I know how it is going to come out. And I think that for me felt a lot more refreshing than just seeing that almost brash, confrontational, sitcom-like start.
NS: Yeah, it did feel like a magical moment in the play. And also spatially it was interesting, because suddenly they were sitting down, at the front, and they somehow managed to create that world really well. And maybe because before Salif actually enters, there’s a lot of description of his character, and there’s so much expectation and all. And Salif just managed to fill that weight of the expectations really well, I felt. I think his star is rising (by the way he just won some Suria reality TV competition…) And he can sing, you know?
NK: Oh, wow.
NS: So maybe we’ll see him in a musical soon?
NK: So definitely check him out.
NS: (He can also rap!) I thought Salif really, really did well. Maybe because that character was written in a very manageable way. But to me, he served his purpose.
ML: I don’t know, I find the character very difficult. And of all the times I’ve seen the show, including the Broadway one, I’ve never quite found a version that satisfies me (though that’s personal taste). But everything you say about him: he had that charm, he had that brightness, he had that romance and that focus. I think all of that worked. I always want from that character… You talked about his suit being too big and that sense of diminishment, and I just want the sense that he’s trying to refill that suit, but that it requires some kind of unnatural effort to do so: that even trying to do so comes with an in-built cruelty, like if you’re going to dig your claws in and climb back up to where you once were, that’s going to involve hurting people, and you know that, and you’re okay with it, but you’re not okay with it. This is all personal taste. And certainly in terms of the acting, I really think he did do what was asked.
What’s not personal taste, though, are moments of the play, which I thought were directed, almost objectively wrong. I mean, is there really objectivity in theatre? Probably not, but you can get close. And there’s a moment where Tom and his mother Amanda are out on the fire escape and all she wants from life is gentleman callers to marry Laura, to the point where the gentleman caller has become a Godot figure where if he arrives, everything will be solved. And Tracie has positioned Amanda sitting on the fire escape with her legs dangling off the side. And Tom says, “Oh, and by the way, a gentleman caller’s coming.” And she just sits there and keeps dangling her legs off the side…
No! That’s just wrong! She should be filled with lightness and air, she should be a helium balloon bouncing off the roof. And she just sits there. And it’s that lack of sensitivity. And this is such a difficult and tonally precise play that I can forgive not being perfectly sensitive to the nuances, and certainly also someone having a different directorial approach which is sensitive to other nuances than the ones I care about. But there’s also bits you just get wrong. And I think that was one. And I think that the interpretation of Tom was one: Tom cannot be a stand-up comedian, he has to be a poet.
NK: Yeah. This is probably just repeating what we said earlier, but it’s a case of, they’ve built up this beautiful structure, and then just somehow not quite managed to fill it. Because the tone, the acting, the direction at times, just didn’t quite match up to this beautiful canvas that they prepared in terms of the technical and design elements of the show.
NS: I think something that I’m realising is that this play is actually really hard to do–
ML: Oh, god yeah! I wouldn’t dare…
ML: I think it’s really hard. I think it’s really good, but it’s also really bad.
NS: But there’s something about it as well that you feel like it should be easy to grasp? But it’s—
ML: Yeah, it should, but it’s so poetically… The dialogue doesn’t come across as very overwritten, but if you read the stage directions, they are atrociously pretentious. And there are directions for what you need to project on the screen, and it’s supposed to be, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” That’s supposed to (in French!) appear projected on the backdrop. Now, what a stupid choice! Of course, this production didn’t do that, although it did use some projection and it perhaps used a little more projection than I would have preferred. But this script does leave you with some bad things in and around its edges, which you really probably shouldn’t do. And then you’ve got to ask, well what do you do, and how important is the cultural specificity…? There are so many difficult choices here to navigate. I love the play, warts and all. But I would not dare to attempt it.
NK: But I think it’s commendable that after such a long time we have got an American classic like this. It’s not perfect, I think everyone can agree. But I think it’s a very, very good version of the play for us to have here. I’m glad this finally was realised after such a long time. And yeah, it would be interesting just to see what other companies have in store in terms of the classics. I mean, we’ve got Wild Rice doing a version of Tartuffe, that’s coming up in a couple of weeks. So perhaps there might be a lot more of these classics that we see on the Singapore stage.
ML: Yeah, that’s what we’ve been missing. You can’t blame people for wanting to bring back the things that we’ve been missing, right? I’m certainly looking forward to it.
NS: So with that…
NK: Thank you very much, everyone, and look forward to speaking to you at the next podcast.
ML: Bye bye.
NK: Thank you. Bye bye.
The Glass Menagerie by Pangdemonium ran from 11 – 27 March 2022 at Victoria Theatre.