A towering dramatic presence brings a fresh perspective to a classic take on family dynamics.
Wentworth Prison governor Joan Ferguson is a large and intimidating character. She wields her power over prisoners and corrections staff through manipulation and fear, much of it expressed in her looming physical form.
Amanda Wingfield, by contrast, is described as a little woman, but powerful. Tennessee Williams writes in his directions for The Glass Menagerie that while the character of Amanda is unwittingly cruel at times, she has some tenderness “in her slight person”.
“A little bird-like thing?” Pamela Rabe laughs, for she plays both Amanda and Joan.
Anyone who has seen Rabe in the television series Wentworth as the psychopathic “Freak” Ferguson towering over co-star Kate Atkinson– far more bird-like as Vera “Vinegar Tits” Bennett– will think some terrible miscasting has gone on for The Glass Menagerie.
Wrong: it is a clever strategy on the part of director Eamon Flack. Casting Rabe is entirely consistent with envisaging the grand emotion and dramatic presence of Amanda, once a “flouncing Southern belle”, as Rabe describes this central, imposing character.
The Glass Menagerie has only four characters (plus one present as a photo on the wall) but it is Amanda – domineering mother to the narrator Tom and the shrinking-violet Laura – who is at the centre of the heightened emotional texture of the work.
As a young actor-in-training in Canada in the early 1980s, Rabe was fortunate to meet Williams (he died in 1983). He had been invited through the acting school’s associated professional theatre company to put on his play The Red Devil Battery Drive. Rabe was in it, and found the famous playwright to be an extraordinarily generous man. “And he was larger than life,” she says.
Rabe first played Amanda – also larger than life– in Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie two years ago at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre, where Flack is artistic director. Now reprising it, with the same actors, for audiences in other cities, Flack has been leading them back into that strange, slightly dreamlike world, and following carefully the extensive production notes that Williams attached to the play, first produced in 1944.
In those notes, Williams explains that it is a “memory play” with “considerably delicate or tenuous material” – and through the unconventional expressionistic treatment he preferred, he thought it should aim to get to the truth about things, towards a “more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are”.
Here is Rabe at the Belvoir rehearsal studio and she is wearing Amanda’s fluffy slippers, frou-frou items that are rather different to the hard-heeled business shoes favoured by black-leather-gloved Governor Ferguson in Wentworth.
“The wonderful thing I like about Amanda and the licence that Eamon has brought to this production is by casting me as I am,” she says. “Not what you would describe as a little, bird-like woman.”
Going through the path of exploration to develop her performance, she’s discovered Amanda is a highly pragmatic woman – someone abandoned years ago by her drunkard husband and left to bring up her two children, one of whom, Tom (Luke Mullins), is stifled while the other, Laura (Rose Riley), retreats into a delicate world filled with the titular array of tiny glass animals.
Behind closed doors some crazy worlds can form amongst family.
“All I need to do is play the circumstances of this world, this desperate world, the Depression between wars,” Rabe says. “A single mother in a world where women are dependent, desperate for her children to survive and to spit them out in some sort of an acceptable state.”
But everything around Amanda conspires to demolish those dreams of the past, in which she saw herself as a desirable young woman with many gentlemen callers. The audience, says Rabe, experiences a chasm between what is in front of their eyes – the tall, robust and mid-50s Rabe-as-Amanda– and what is in the delusional dreams of the character’s heart.
Rabe – who won a Helpmann Award for her first turn as Amanda in 2014, and an AACTA Award for Wentworth‘s Ferguson last year – is fascinated by Williams’ specific instructions about the character, who is supposed to be someone of “great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place”. He wrote that she “must be carefully created, not copied from type”.
“There is much to admire in Amanda,” Williams tells us, “and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at.”
“I don’t have to be noble but I have to love her,” Rabe says of Amanda. “And I do adore her.” Like most female leads in Williams’ work, she is writ large. “It is no accident that you remember Tennessee Williams for his heroines. Those female characters are great subjects for parody because they are foolish in the way human beings are foolish.”
Thus we are drawn into their world of unattainable dreams and a mythologised past. “Behind closed doors some crazy worlds can form amongst family, they can lose touch with the real world,” Rabe says. “That is [Williams’] specialty, the idea of how you can actually be living in a delusional state, but if you can get somebody to join you in that place you can create another word that is untethered from reality. All sorts of violence and happiness can happen in that world, because it is a planet unto itself.
“If anybody comes in and questions that, challenges that or punctures that delusional space, great tragedy can occur. We can all relate to that in a way because we have all grown up in families, with the delusions of families, the crazy love-hate relationships you can have with people you are trapped in enclosed spaces with. Certainly this is one of those.”
Rabe says The Glass Menagerie, under Flack’s direction, “hovers in this dream bubble, a magical space”, one that is interwoven with the worlds of the cinema and of memories. Flack’s production presents it as a period piece, following Williams’ instructions for a screen behind the actors with images and text, almost as if we are seeing hints of their imaginations and memories.
“People have a much more intimate relationship with screen stories because you sit in the dark and it is just you, and it is the closest to the way we experience dreams,” Rabe says. “Whereas the way we watch theatre is often a much more communal thing. It is in a bubble of space between the players, the ideas and a community of listeners. Tennessee was trying to kind of nudge at some convergence of the two … the idea that you could have something that would pull you out to think about the big ideas being examined in the piece, and the audience had enough elasticity to also be plunged into a deep emotional landscape at the same time.