Steve Cramer talks to director Jemima Levick about dysfunctional families, comedy and Tennessee Williams
You’ve got to hand it to the Lyceum. They seemed so aware of the mood of their audience in programming The Wizard of Oz in the run-up to Christmas, a time when many people experience that longing for reunion with the family that runs through the play. By this time of year, however, there are undoubtedly members of the average audience who have had all that sentiment dispelled and who’ve been freshly reminded of just what an ordeal spending several days with parents and siblings can be. So why not stage that epic of dysfunctional family drama, The Glass Menagerie?
And in giving Jemima Levick, one of the brightest young directorial talents in Scotland, the job of taking on Tennessee Williams’ first real commercial hit, Mark Thomson’s company have shown characteristic savvy beyond the programming. Levick’s take on this family drama, driven by the memories of an errant son of his eccentric, intensely demanding mother and reclusive sister, cuts straight to the drama, and the oppressive air of families who’ve come to know each other’s weaknesses too well.
‘There’s this assumption that because people are family you should understand them. But why should we understand them? They’re family, they’re just kind of there,’ Levick says. For her, the family at the centre, plagued with guilt, jealousy and resentment, acts in a manner that we might see at the worst moments among our own kin.
‘A lot of the time it’s things that you completely get, maybe your family isn’t exactly the same, but still . . . There’s one scene where Tom has this huge row with his mother, and the next scene he wakes up with this wicked hangover – how many of us have been there? And the mother, Amanda, is so ridiculous, she’s ridiculous even in her terms, so you need to find a way to stop the audience from saying, “God, if I was Tom, the son, I’d be right out of there.”’
The relieving factor, when we reflect on such matters is their potential for humour, and Levick is keen to exploit the comedy which often goes unnoticed in Williams’ modern classic. ‘People say it’s a very sad play, and it is – there’s a good chance you’ll end up crying, but there are situations in it which are also ridiculous; it’s also a very funny play, potentially, and people tend to forget that. You can easily play it as tragedy, tragedy, tragedy, but it’s not hard to find the humour,’ Levick says.
There are many possible interpretations of the play. Many see it as Williams’ most biographical, with readings often running along lines that seek to explore his relationship with his mother, as well as his gay sexuality. Another way of seeing the play is its treatment of the American Dream and the disillusionment this created in the 30s, the period in which the play is set. Levick, though, sees the play as essentially about the family at the centre.
‘There’s plenty of context, there’s the Depression, and great world exhibition. Someone asked me about the American Dream in the play the other day, and that’s all there, but who cares, on one level. I see this family on stage and they’re absolutely tearing each other apart – that’s drama, and if I was a member of the audience, that’s what I’d be interested in.’
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 11 Jan–Sat 9 Feb.