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Deborah Findlay On ... Tennessee Williams’ Southern Belles

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Deborah Findlay is currently starring as Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical memory play, The Glass Menagerie, running at the Young Vic as part of the Southwark landmark’s 40th anniversary season.

Findlay won a Laurence Olivier Award for Stanley, while her other theatre credits, at the National, Donmar Warehouse, Bush and elsewhere, include Like a Fishbone, The Winter’s Tale, Mother Clap’s Molly House, The House of Bernarda Alba, The Cut, The Vortex, Madame De Sade, John Gabriel Borkman and Separate Tables.

On screen, Findlay’s credits include Cranford, State of Play, Torchwood, Poirot, Gunrush, Wives and Daughters, Silent Witness and Midsomer Murders on television, and the films Summer, Me Without You, Jack and Sarah, Vanity Fair and Truly Madly Deeply.

Amanda Wingfield is a fighter. The words I would use in association with her would be vital, optimistic, resourceful. It’s one of the most wonderful parts written for women. It’s got such depth and range. Amanda is struggling with lots of things, including trying to help her children and maintain the illusion of her youth. There is humour and also tragedy. There’s that conflict with somebody who, maybe on the surface, seems comic – ridiculous even – but actually, she has a deep humanity and sorrow.

The play is one of Williams’ most autobiographical. The parallels are very, very clear. The family in the play is the mother Amanda, the son Tom and the daughter Laura. Tennessee Williams was called Tom and his real sister, Rose, was obviously Laura – a very very fragile girl, Rose ended up having a lobotomy. There’s obviously something in the play that is Tennessee working out about his attitude to his own sister, looking back.

Our director Joe Hill-Gibbins encouraged us to do lots of research and there’s such a wealth available. Tennessee’s mother, who was called Edwina, published her own memoirs. That’s been wonderful to delve into as they’re in her voice so you really get a sense of this woman. Although Edwina said she wasn’t Amanda, it’s clear that she was. She was a Southern belle, her father was a minister and they lived down in the South, in Clarksdale. She had gentleman callers herself. There’s a line in the play when Amanda says she had “17 gentleman callers”. Well, Edwina tells a story of how she had 74!

Amanda Wingfield is considered a precursor to some of Williams’ other female figures, like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Obviously, they’re both Southern belles, like Edwina, and as in so many of his plays, there’s the whole Gone With the Wind sort of mystique about the South overall. When you read about the history of the plantations and the South, there is almost a mythologising of it. I think that definitely Amanda Wingfield and Blanche Dubois both did that – and Edwina did that.

Where Amanda differs from Blanche is that she’s much more of a survivor. That’s what I’m keen to explore. Despite the fact that she has her myths and she lives in an illusion of her own making, of the South and more genteel times, Amanda is somebody who can run up a dress, demonstrate brassieres in a department store and do whatever it takes to fend for her children. This combination of the fantasy life she inhabits that keeps her going and the reality of living in a tenement flat in poverty, that’s fascinating.

We’ve done a lot of work on the whole nature of the play, the way that Williams almost jump-cuts from scene to scene. It’s not just a straight telling of a story. At the beginning, Tom says this is a memory play. So what we’re asking ourselves all along is, why has he chosen to portray that memory or this memory? Why are they important and what is he trying to work out through them?

The Glass Menagerie opened on 17 November 2010 (previews from 11 November) at the Young Vic, where it runs until 15 January 2011 as part of the theatre’s 40th anniversary season. The cast also features Sinead Matthews as Laura, Leo Bill as Tom and Kyle Soller as the gentleman caller Jim.


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