Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA is about to unveil its new production of The Glass Menagerie at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth. Winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best American Play in 1944, Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical family drama is being re-examined with a contemporary audience in mind by director Clare Watson. For Mandy McElhinney, taking on the role of the family matriarch Amanda Wingfield is a dream come true. They both talk to Limelight ahead of the first performance on 2 August.

Mandy McElhinney in The Glass Menagerie © Cross Border Productions

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie needs little introduction. It is a theatre classic by which many directors and actors are measured. Amanda Wingfield is a faded Southern belle, who slips in and out of reality as she desperately pushes her two children back up the social ladder. In this production, Clare Watson has cast Mandy McElhinney as Amanda, Joel Jackson as Amanda’s son Tom – who is generally regarded as a representation of the playwright himself – and Acacia Daken as his sister Laura, while Jake Fryer-Hornsby plays Tom’s friend Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller.

In portraying Amanda, McElhinney is fulfilling a lifelong ambition. She admits first attempting to play the role at the age of just 13.

“It’s such a delicious part,” says McElhinney. “She’s so much fun and there’s so much humour in this play that I wasn’t really aware of. I guess that can happen with classics. They’re put on a pedestal and revered and not seen as something alive, but this just feels so fresh. Amanda’s got this wonderful energy that constantly bubbles and bubbles. It’s a lot of fun and a massive part.”

McElhinney is also aware of the legacy that accompanies the role.

“Some great actresses have given incredible performances of it before. I happened to see Pamela Rabe do it in Sydney and she was magnificent. I come to it with a great amount of humility and awareness that it’s not an easy role. I am totally in love with Tennessee Williams and so privileged that I get to serve his work.”

How then does she plan to make the part her own?

“You have to come to the text rather than bringing the text to you. I don’t come into anything feeling that I need to put my mark on it or impose something, especially when the writing is as great as it is. All I can do is be as truthful as I can be and serve the text as well as I can. Thanks to the people Clare has cast, and the family that we make, it just is different.”

In thinking about the play, Watson is very keen for audiences to be able to relate and have sympathy for Amanda.

“She’s so often maligned in the canon,” says Watson, “and she’s a brilliant woman. She works so hard on everything she does. Every choice she makes is for her children, and for them to have a better life. In doing so, she has to release so much of her own desire.”

For Watson, McElhinney is key to achieving this in her staging.

“Mandy is somebody who’s got this extraordinary intellect that is matched with a warmth and humour. She’s completely gorgeous – hot to trot – and there’s something about her Amanda that we can fall in love with and desire. As an audience, we don’t necessarily have to sit in the position of the put-upon son, as an audience often does in this and other plays that have women in lead roles. I think it’s very important to make sure we adore her as much as we adore the other characters.”

McElhinney adds, “There’s great humour and there’s great love. All her motivation is through absolute love and devotion.”

Jake Fryer-Hornsby, Mandy McElhinney and Clare Watson in rehearsal © Dana Weeks

Conversation turns to the reasons why roles like Amanda have been treated unsympathetically in the past. Is it simply a matter of them having been written by men? And why are we suddenly able to rethink these roles and find kernels of goodness and understandability within them?

Watson says, “There’s that idea of women as Madonna or the whore, and no male characters have ever been written in that way. There’s this sense of complexity of male characters on the stage. I think that we’ve entered a time when it’s essential that we present women in an equally complex manner, otherwise, we can’t relate to them as an audience.”

McElhinney agrees. “We’ve put on a different set of glasses. We’ve got bifocals with a female lens now, and I think we’re able to see things in the historical context of the lack of choice that women had in those days, and the desperate situations they found themselves in. I think that because Tom is Tennessee Williams, we somehow get the feeling that his mother is stopping him from being this great writer.”

Watson interjects, “But he did okay, didn’t he?”

“He did fine,” McElhinney replies laughing. “And in reality, his mother was the first one to buy him a typewriter. She was extremely proud of her writing son. I do believe that exists in the play. I don’t think we’re imposing that on it, but as an audience we are able to see that more clearly now.”

Watson adds, “I also think that in his writing, there is an aura of her intellect and her use of language. In so many of the narrator’s monologues, he directly quotes lines that she says throughout the play. He’s kind of bowerbirding her language, and her influence is partly what makes him a great writer.”

In that case, does Watson think that past representations of Amanda have had less to do with the way Williams wrote the part, and more to do with interpretations since then?

“Certainly. And I think that just as most writers of the canon have tended to be men, most of the directors have too … and actually still are. Certainly, in Australia there’s still more male directors than women.”

Given the attitudes of some, what do Watson and McElhinney think of the way the relevance of plays by the likes of Williams and even Shakespeare is sometimes questioned?

“This is actually one of my favourite conversations,” Watson admits. “I think it’s essential that we continue to look at the canon and continue to share it with audiences, because so much of what we do now on the stage is a direct result of where we’ve come from. If we were to suddenly exclude all of that from our audience’s experience and from current culture, then we’d lose an understanding of how we’ve travelled here. I think that is essential. Declan Greene once described to me the idea of the umbilical cord from the original text through to a contemporary production. By putting it on, we’re in direct relationship with the original text and the original production and every other production that has ever been done since then. There’ll be people in our audience who have seen multiple productions and we become part of that experience for them.”

“It’s really important that within the work, we talk about what’s challenging for a contemporary audience, and what’s challenging for contemporary artists. Without necessarily removing or omitting things, we need to try and think of ways we can reframe and amplify, so that we can see the play in a way that feels fresh, important and new. But we’re also paying homage to where we’ve come from and why we do what we do,” says Watson.

McElhinney adds, “In this play, Tennessee borrows from Chekhov, the Ancient Greek plays and Shakespeare, and that makes our cultural experience richer. It informs and inspires the creation of new work, and the technique that’s required to perform a role like this will also make me a better actor. It always has, whenever I’ve done a classic work, so it’s vital.”

Mandy McElhinney, Acacia Daken and Clare Watson in rehearsal © Dana Weeks

Last year, McElhinney starred as Toni in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Appropriate. Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the 2014 Obie Award play riffed off classic Williams’ tropes in a modern-day context. Has that experience coloured her take on Amanda in The Glass Menagerie?

“It’s a perfect example of a writer asking us to question ourselves using the vehicle of classic American family drama,” McElhinney says. “It’s informed my headspace in terms of how Amanda carries with her that great memory of the South. Appropriate was very much about what that means now, and she’s still clinging on to the days of the plantations, the servants and oppression. As we’re doing this, it’s certainly in the back of our minds that Amanda is romanticising something that came at the expense of an entire race being encumbered. So much of it is about telling the truth and that’s the other thing that Appropriate was about. We can’t whitewash history. We must look at the photographs, we must look at these truths. In terms of cultural healing, we absolutely must acknowledge what has happened and we need to do that with new writing.”

Watson says, “In a way it’s in The Glass Menagerie too, because you see how Amanda’s sense of nostalgia for that time is equal and opposite to the younger characters and the gentleman caller, who signals progress and change in the future. You see the push and pull of that within the dynamics of the play, and we’re seeing it play out on the stage.”

Tennessee Williams’ stage directions are particularly prescriptive. Was Watson at all tempted to disregard them?

“If you’d asked me that question in my twenties, I would have said, ‘Throw it all out! We don’t need stage directions. We’re going to do it on roller skates.’ And I do have that way of working, so that I can be playful and we can allow our imaginations to run wild. At the same time, I come to the work now with a deep sense of humility and the utmost respect. It’s almost like a battle inside me, between throwing it all out and making sure we give the work the love it requires, so that an audience seeing it for the very first time can understand why it’s a classic. For example, we’re looking at having the Blondie song Heart of Glass as a theme that will run throughout. If people catch it, they catch it. That’s my attempt at having a sense of voice and personal style within a work that I want to lovingly take care of.”

Watson continues, “There’s something about the idea of a curatorial role in directing a work like this, and the relationship it has to every other production that’s gone before. There’s a sense of the curator as somebody who takes care of souls and, as I’ve got older and more experienced, I’d like to think I’ve become better at that. A lighter touch with a work like this is, I think, going to be much more pleasing for everybody.”

McElhinney adds, “It shows great self-confidence and maturity to be able to say, ‘Okay, none of us are going to be more interesting than this writer.’ Why would you want to be? He’s fantastic, so let’s let everybody hear him the way he needs to be heard.”

Black Swan State Theatre Company’s The Glass Menagerie is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth from 2–21 August.

Sign up to the free Limelight newsletter