Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe, Paris; 10 March 2020
Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Ivo van Hove
From the moment it was announced that Ivo van Hove was to direct Tennessee Williams’s early masterpiece La Ménagerie de Verre (The Glass Menagerie) for Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe and that the role of Amanda Wingfield would be played by the legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert, tickets started flying out of the box office
How heartbreaking then that, just a few days into the seven-week run, the theatre announced that it – and the remainder of its spring season – was to be cancelled as the Coronavirus epidemic tightened its grip on the country. And how disappointing that thousands of theatregoers would be denied the rare privilege of watching, live on the vast Odéon stage, one of the great actors of our time going about her craft.
Huppert’s performance as Williams’s sexually needy, faded Southern belle, the single mother of two dysfunctional children, is nothing short of extraordinary. Under van Hove’s piercing direction, its layered subtlety stretches and raises those of her fellow cast members, Justine Bachelet as her daughter Laura, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart as her son Tom and Cyril Guei as the affable gentleman caller Jim O’Connor.
At once fragile, girlish and as tough as old boots, Amanda is a survivor and an indomitable fighter, who is at her most lethal – and most vulnerable – when either of her children is hurting. And hurting they most certainly are.
Biscayart brings a dangerous, highly physical edge to the autobiographical character of Tom, an aspiring writer trapped in a dead end factory job, and a closet homosexual, nervously guarding a secret existence lived out under cover of darkness and on the pretence of frequent visits to the movies.
The mother-daughter relationship is strange and disturbing. In contrast with more traditional portrayals, van Hove imagines Laura as physically sound but psychologically damaged beyond repair. In Bachelet’s fearless performance, there are times when she seems barely human, clinically attached to her mercurial mother, spoon fed, sleeping on the floor, crawling around like an animal but blooming with joy in her tragically brief encounter with Geui’s well-intentioned Jim.
The moment when he realises the impact of his thoughtless advance on this deeply impressionable girl is beautifully nuanced, though the accidental smashing of her precious glass unicorn misses a vital dramatic beat in signalling the finality of Laura’s mental descent. It is left to Huppert again to step forward, undermining her daughter’s perceived failure as a woman as she flirts shamelessly and effortlessly with the ingenuous Jim.
There is much to admire, much to process, intellectually and emotionally, but – and it is a very big but – this intelligent, sensitively interpreted production looks simply horrible. Why designer Jan Versweyveld has chosen to drench one of the most plangent, delicate and sweetly tinted plays of the 20th century in a festering, claustrophobic set, reminiscent of an IRA prisoner’s dirty protest cell, is a mystery.
The entire visual palette is the colour of excrement, large amounts of which appear to have been smeared on walls and floor and onto which have been sketched the faces of former occupants of the apartment, including Amanda’s drunken, long-absent husband.
The living space is windowless and low ceilinged, with gnarled nooks and crannies and a tiny hidden cupboard which houses the collection of glass treasures. Beyond the narrow brown-carpeted staircase there is no hint of sweet night air or the moonlit rooftop where Tom seeks nightly solace. The fetid atmosphere serves to heighten not only the awfulness of Laura’s sub-human existence but the closed prison into which Tom’s dash for freedom will forever condemn his sister and inconsolable mother.
Huppert is tremendously powerful in the play’s terrible final moments. Amanda’s wails of despair seem to well up from the very depths of her being, her fighting spirit extinguished, her hopes and dreams utterly crushed.
Between now and Christmas, La Ménagerie de Verre is due to tour internationally to Anvers, London (Barbican 5 to 11 June), Tokyo, Hambourg, Luxembourg and Athens. There will be regular news updates on: http://www.theatre-odeon.eu