Two very different plays by the same writer are on in London and in each of them the common view of Tennessee Williams as the quintessentially white American playwright is disassembled in dramatic and thought-provoking ways.
Both “The Glass Menagerie” and “Orpheus descending” are about essentially good people who are trapped by circumstances that would rob them of possibilities for happiness.
At the Arcola theatre in Dalston, the British Nigerian director Femi Elufowoju Jr. has breathed new life into “The Glass Menagerie” by imagining the Wingfields in 1930s St Louis Missouri – only one character in the play is not a member of this family – as African Americans. This is not as aberrant as it might seem because well-off black families owning large farms and coming out at cotillion dances did exist but the point being made is not chiefly an academic one about black history.
What does come across, thanks to the emotionally compelling performances is something that cuts across race: a mother who lives in a past world; a son who yearns to escape work in a factory; and a fragile sister who is too tender for a rough world.
All three are sadly vulnerable people. The colour of their skin is not what matters but, because “The Glass Menagerie” is usually produced using Caucasian actors, we have been conditioned to think of it as a play about a culturally white experience. This superb production shatters this assumption.
Across town at Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, the rarely produced “Orpheus descending” is on the stage. One of Tennessee Williams’ least known plays, the title recalls the ancient Greek myth about lyre-playing Orpheus descending to Hades to see his dead wife and seeking to return with her to the living world.
A small Southern town is the hell of Williams’ play and Orpheus is Val Xavier, an itinerant guitarist who turns up there and makes the acquaintance of Lady Torrance in her dry goods store. Her father’s premises were burnt to the ground by a racist mob because he dared sell liquor to black customers and this memory, combined with her unhappy marriage, has made her adopt a tough and unforgiving demeanour.
The performances are riveting and, despite weaknesses in the play itself, command the audience’s attention throughout.
The soulful Val is able to resuscitate the heart of a woman who has for too long had to suppress her better feelings.
Knowing the propensity for unhappy endings in Greek myths, the omens for a successful outcome are not good. There is only one black character in “Orpheus descending”, playing a minor role, but racism and bigotry lay at the heart of the play.
The physical space of both theatres, the Arcola and Menier Chocolate Factory, bring audiences close to the stage: expect rollercoaster rides into the world of Tennessee Williams where skin colour can make all the difference or no difference at all.
(Photos supplied by the theatres)