Cherry Jones on poetry of Tennessee Williams’ A Glass Menagerie

Cherry Jones had to be persuaded to read for the part by director John Tiffany. Picture: Contributed
Cherry Jones had to be persuaded to read for the part by director John Tiffany. Picture: Contributed
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Cherry Jones, who stars in A Glass Menagerie, tells Joyce McMillan why Tennessee Williams’s poetry is central to John Tiffany’s new production

When John Tiffany was a theatre student at Glasgow University, 25 years ago, his drama lecturer – the late and legendary Alasdair Cameron – gave him a copy of Tennessee Williams’s 1944 masterpiece The Glass Menagerie, and told him to read not only the play, but Williams’s preface to it. In that preface, in a few hundred words, Williams defines his great family drama, set in late-1930s St Louis, as a “memory play”, and argues for the idea of “plastic theatre”; a theatre founded not on the realistic imitation of life, with “a genuine Frigidaire and ice-cubes”, but on a visual and dramatic representation of something more abstract and more profound – the emotional reality lived by the characters, and the deep social forces shaping their world.

I had heard voices like Amanda’s in my own Tennessee childhood. I could feel them bubbling up in me

Cherry Jones

In the years that followed, John Tiffany’s career as a director took him into the world of new writing, and far from the kind of job in which he might have directed Williams’s work. He became an associate director at the Traverse in Edinburgh, staging new work that included Gregory Burke’s brilliant debut play Gagarin Way, then joined his friend and closest colleague Vicky Featherstone at Paines Plough, the London-based touring company for new writing.

When Featherstone was appointed founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2004, Tiffany didn’t hesitate to return to the city that had become his home since he left Huddersfield as an 18-year-old student, and to become the NTS’s director of new work. His NTS production of Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, about Scottish soldiers during the Iraq War, won him global fame, touring the world for seven years after its sensational opening night at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe; and when, in 2010, he asked for a year’s sabbatical from the NTS to take up a fellowship at Harvard, he had no idea that he was embarking on a path that would lead him back, full circle, to a playwright whose ideas – outlined in that famous preface - had become a fundamental inspiration for his work as a director.

“There I was at Harvard,” says Tiffany, “very close to the famous American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a friend from New York told me that someone he knew who was working at ART had seen Black Watch in New York, and would like to meet me. The friend was Cherry Jones, really one of America’s finest stage actors; and when we met, she started telling me about how she had just been back to visit her mum in Tennessee, where she grew up. I heard this wonderful southern voice, and just thought of Williams immediately. I asked her if she had ever played Amanda Wingfield, the mother in Glass Menagerie, and she said ‘No’; I asked if she would like to play her, and she said, ‘No way!’ But eventually, I persuaded her to do a reading of it; and when we finished, she just closed the script, turned to me, and said, ‘OK, when do we start?’”

Tiffany’s production of the play – starring Jones as the fragile but furiously protective single mother who lives partly in fantasies about her youth as a southern belle, partly in an all-too-real struggle for economic survival for herself and her vulnerable daughter Laura – opened at ART early in 2013, shortly after Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany announced their departure from the National Theatre of Scotland. The show transferred almost immediately to Broadway, winning huge plaudits and a best actress nomination for Jones in the 2014 
Tony Awards. Ben Brantley of the New York Times was among many critics moved to superlatives by the production and performances, and by Bob Crowley’s unforgettable set, which sets the Wingfields’ cramped two-room apartment in a great threatening lagoon of black water.

“I don’t know why I was so reluctant to do the play,” says Jones, who is probably best known to British audiences not for her dazzling US stage career, but for her role as President Taylor in the television series 24. “I guess” – she laughs – “I just was not bright enough fully to understand the poetry of the piece. I thought of Amanda as cloying and wearing, and her character just didn’t seem right for the sort of actor I am.

“But John made me do the reading, and I read opposite Michael Esper, who’s now playing Amanda’s son Tom in this new Edinburgh version, and who just opened my eyes to the beat of the language, and its power. When I read Amanda that day, I realised that I had heard this voice, or voices like it, in my own childhood in Tennessee. I can remember those southern women who were born in the 1880s, their voices, their charm, the ones who were larger than life, the ones who were little and bird-like; and when I began to play the part, I could feel them bubbling up inside me, women from my own family.

“My feeling about Amanda is that she is not a monster at all, but a loving, caring woman who has been placed in an impossible position, abandoned by her husband, left alone to bring up two children in this hard northern city during the Depression, and absolutely desperate to ensure that her daughter Laura, who is so painfully vulnerable, has either a job or a husband – some way of surviving, once Tom leaves, as he must.”

In London this summer, Tiffany is combining rehearsals for the Edinburgh revival of The Glass Menagerie with final preparations for his latest show, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, a two-part stage sequel to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels co-devised by himself and Rowling, along with playwright Jack Thorne. Even amid the pressures of such a high-profile West End production process, though, he says he has been both shocked and impressed, as he comes back to The Glass Menagerie after two years, by the sheer timeliness of the play, and how it seems to have gained in power, even during that short time.

“In the play, we’re constantly being reminded through Tom’s narrative of the backdrop of world events against which this story unfolds,” says Tiffany. “He talks about the Spanish Civil War, about the rise of fascism in Europe, and about how even in St Louis the world seems to be waiting for something, waiting for bombardment. And when his narrative moves into the present – during the Second World War – he uses this unforgettable phrase, “Now, the world is lit by lightning,” to conjure up the change he has lived through. It’s moving, and emotional, and terrifying, in a way; like a vision of the times we’re living through, as well as a memory of the late 1930s.”

Jones agrees. “It’s as if the play is moving ahead of history, as well as back into memory,” she says. “And I think Tennessee Williams would be over the moon to see this production; because John, and the movement director Stephen Hoggett, and the designer Bob Crowley, and the wonderful lighting designer Natasha Katz – everyone has listened to that foreword, and created a beautiful realisation of the play, where every single theatrical element supports Tennessee’s poetry. And his poetry is at the centre of everything, of course; where it should be.”

• The Glass Menagerie is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 7-21 August, with previews 5-6 August, 0131-473 2000 / www.eif.co.uk