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Cherry Jones and John Tiffany - The Glass Menagerie

Cherry Jones never wanted to play Amanda Wingfield, the bruised and brittle matriarch in The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams' semi autobiographical masterpiece that made his name. It was only when former National Theatre of Scotland associate director John Tiffany wooed the veteran stage and screen actress, best known in the UK for her Emmy winning turn as U.S. President Allison Taylor in TV drama, 24, into tackling the part that she discovered there was more to Amanda than meets the eye.

“I'd always thought of Amanda as a harridan,” says Jones on a break from re-rehearsing Tiffany's 2013 American Repertory Theatre production for its current Edinburgh International Festival run. “I'd auditioned for Laura about five times in my youth, but I was too big-boned to ever get the part. I'd always seen the play through young people's eyes, but when John Tiffany forced me to sit down with it, I started to realise that here was a woman in desperate straits.

“Here is a woman coming to the end of her life, whose son is going to be off in five minutes, and as soon as Amanda is gone, there'll be no-one to look after her physically vulnerable daughter. In that opening scene it's a beautiful day, full of love, humour and enjoyment, and before he takes us to a darker place, you can see that this family may be dysfunctional, but they genuinely love each other.”

Tiffany's production of The Glass Menagerie came about when he met Jones while on a sabbatical from the NTS, working with American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University.

“It's been my favourite play since I was given me a copy in my first year at Glasgow University,” says Tiffany, whose production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has just opened in London to universal acclaim. “I never thought I'd direct The Glass Menagerie, because I tend to work mainly on new plays, but then in 2011 I met Cherry in this folk venue where Bob Dylan had first met Joan Baez. She'd just come back from Tennessee, and had found all of these letters from her mum to her dad. When she started to read them out, she did this voice and a lightbulb went off for me. Cherry Jones doing The Glass Menagerie is like Laurence Olivier or Mark Rylance doing Shakespeare.”

Key to the production was Williams' introductory essay to the play.

“He has this philosophy of what he calls plastic theatre,” says Tiffany. “He never wanted realism, but poetry, whether that was through direct address to the audience or using tableaux and gauzes. We thought all our philosophies of theatre were original, but actually we stole it all from Tennessee Williams, and even though the theatrical vocabulary of gauzes is quite old-fashioned now, I wanted to find out what a twenty-first century version of plastic theatre might be.”

According to Jones, “what these boys have done is bring a poetry onto the stage, visually and spiritually. I've seen so many productions of this play, but this one take things to a level that makes it magical to be part of.”

When Jones speaks, it is with the silky politesse and natural charm of a real life Southern belle turned grand dame. She refers to her director and movement director Steven Hoggett as Mr Tiffany and Mr Hoggett. Perhaps Jones' change of heart in taking on the role of Amanda has something to do with recognising something in her that relates to her own upbringing in Paris, Tennessee.

“Growing up in the South,” says Jones, “there were so many women who were Amanda's age, who had all been born in the 1880s, and had charm, grace, wit and style, and many of them were great performers and story-tellers. You could see them in the middle of a story suddenly become much younger. But these women had all been through such terrible hardship. Tennessee Williams said that when people compared Amanda to his own mother, that Amanda had much more dignity than her.”

Jones' own family background was idyllic by comparison.

“My parents were truly extraordinary people living in this little Tennessee town,” she remembers. “They were wonderful, and had total respect for everyone who crossed their paths. As a child watching that example, it makes you want to put yourself in other people's shoes.”

A move into acting was inevitable for Jones from an early age.

“I'm one of those people who never wanted to do anything else,” she says. “I grew up going to the cinema, I played in the woods with my childhood friends, and I made it clear to everyone that I intended to continue playing make-believe.”

After studying drama in Pittsburgh, Jones made her way to New York, working with the Brooklyn Theatre Company inbetween scooping ice cream to make ends meet. A call from American Repertory Company saw her cast in As You Like It. She stayed with the company for the next ten years. She won two Tony awards, first for the stage adaptation of Henry James' The Heiress in 1995, and then a decade later for the original production of John Patrick Shanley's play, Doubt. Film roles in The Horse Whisperer, Erin Brockovich and Oceans Twelve came inbetween. Acting onscreen, however, is something that doesn't come natural to Jones.

“I've never felt comfortable with it,” she says. “The camera goes on me and I fall apart, and I'm constantly amazed that I've ever had a TV and film career at all.”

As for 24, “It was the easiest thing in my life. All I had to do was show up, learn my lines and look serious.”

Jones is only half joking when she says this.

“It was a really sweet situation for me,” she says. “I made more money than I'd ever made, and when I wasn't filming that allowed me to fly out to see my parents.”

While she by no means became a celebrity on the back of the show, the recognition it afforded Jones meant that “I've practically been saluted going through security checks a couple of times.”

Despite this, theatre remains Jones' first love.

“Oh, boy, is it,” she says. “I remember doing Andrei Serban's production of Twelfth Night, and finally feeling like I'd come of age onstage,feeling like I could drop the self and distill something that moved into a deeper pool.”

While she jokes that “The parts I want to play haven't been written yet,” Jones is more serious about the emotional impact a play like The Glass Menagerie can have on audiences.

“It's always hard to say how things affect individuals,” she says. “A friend's father came to see The Glass Menagerie, and he was a New York man, very successful, and afterwards he was inconsolable. My friend said that for weeks afterwards he was changed.

“We each bring something of ourselves and our own experience to the theatre, and I always hope that theatre makes us feel less alone, and that there is some comfort in sharing our drama and our joys. How we respond depends on age and experience, and for those of us who are older, there is a bittersweetness to every memory.

“I think that was the reason I was never drawn to the play. I came from such a happy family background that I couldn't see Amanda. Now I realise that for a woman, she is our Hamlet. I sure am glad I've grown up enough to understand her.”

The Glass Menagerie, King's Theatre, August 5-20, 7.30pm (except August 9 and 16); August 11, 13, 17, 19, 2.30pm; August 21, 1pm and 6pm.


The Herald, August 9th 2016

ends

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