“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” So begins Tom Wingfield’s opening soliloquy in Tennessee Williams’ extraordinary play, The Glass Menagerie, which is coming to the Malthouse theatre next month.
The actor who gets to voice the wonderfully textured and richly layered language of Williams’ Tom is Helpmann Award winning actor Luke Mullins whose favourite thing about playing a character like Tom is the extraordinary quality of Tennessee Williams’ writing.
“He is not afraid to combine a poetic lyricism and desire for beauty and magic with an honesty and truthfulness that pierce the core of what it is to human,” says Mullins. “I love that the primary relationships in the play are with his sister and mother and that the play as a classic queer text is about this strange three person family and their deep love for each other. It is the closeness of their bonds that mean that inevitably they will break. We all need to break away from our families at some point in our lives and all the characters in this play desire in some way to be free of the situation the are currently in.”
A strongly autobiographical tale, The Glass Menagerie was Williams’ first successful play catapulting him to fame and renown. It is a play about dysfunctionality, remorse, guilt, yearning, fragility and escape. Tom is the narrator and protagonist and it is through his eyes and memory that we travel into the lives of the Wingfield family and, later, the Gentleman Caller who arouses in all of the Winfields a desire and hope that, for some, will remain tragically unattainable.
“Desire is Tennessee Williams driving force,” agrees Mullins. “All the characters in Glass Menagerie desire something else and are trying to escape their current situation in order to get it. The yearning for something that cannot quite yet be seen but that one knows is out there is a beautiful space to explore and swim around in for an audience. Williams never loses his characters in the lyricism or in sentimentality. His language and worlds are also brutal, cruel and shocking. As an actor it is a gift to be able to immerse yourself in this world and this production does a fantastic job of immersing the audience in the world as well. It is incredibly beautiful to look at and all the elements of sound, light and film projection have been delicately interwoven with the text and performances. There is a warmth and a humor to the production that I think enable an audience to enter the play and invest in all the characters and the journey they are taking the audience on.”
The play remains so potent that seventy years after its writing its themes and universal truisms still resonate with powerful significance. Desire, sexuality, the need for love and the denial of it are themes that continue to pulse in the veins of all humankind as are dealing with the past, our memory of it and the gap that exists between these two things. “Anyone who has needed to pursue their own desires, their own dreams for their lives has had to face the limitations of the people around them,” says Mullins.” The expectations that our ‘family’ (in whatever form that takes) place on us can limit us to someone else’s idea of who we are, how we should behave and what we are capable of. The need to break away from this and find out who we really are and what we are capable of is imperative to becoming a fully realised human being.”
Tom feels stifled at home and it is his aspiration to write poetry and his nightly excursions away that assist an escape into a place that is not reality. It is, however, Tom’s determination to live an authentic life that inspires Mullins the most. “The obligation to be true to who he is and what he knows he can do in the world is what enables him to survive the play,” says Mullins. “The three family members all suffer from delusions and unfulfilled desires but as a queer character (and an artist) Tom is able to see through the false hope that the Gentleman Caller represents and imagine another way to live; a way to be in the world outside of the apartment they are trapped in. For him this is to become an artist who can articulate a way of seeing and being in the world that is unique and yet manages to speaks to many people.”
Malthouse has assembled a fine cast lead by multi-award winning actor Pamela Rabe. Also starring alongside Mullins is Harry Greenwood and Rose Riley. An amazing ensemble by anyone’s reckoning and one that Mullins acknowledges.
“The other joy in playing this role is to be in such a beautiful production with such fantastic actors. I am really thrilled to be returning to this production with the same people – they are all a delight to work with and the process of creating the production as well as the experience of performing it every night is extremely collaborative which is incredibly satisfying for an artist and is palpable in an audience’s experience.”
Mullins believes the production strikes a fantastic line by being true to the spirit of Tennessee Williams’ play including its time and place, while employing a vibrant and contemporary approach to theatre making to bring it to life. “There is a generosity in Williams’ writing and a warmth and a humor to the production that I think enable an audience to enter the play and invest in all the characters and the journey they are taking the audience on,” he says.
The play comes to the Malthouse straight from a sell out season in Sydney and will deliver all that Williams intended. After all, he promises to offer us truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion and we, as watcher, are prepared to swim in that warm emotional truth blindly and without question because, ultimately, we are as entwined as the Wingfields.
The Glass Menagerie
May 12 – 14
May 18 – June 5