Young director takes on challenge of a classic drama

It has to be one of the casting coups of the autumn.

Greta Scacchi with director Ellen McDougall in rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie. Picture: Manuel Harlan
Greta Scacchi with director Ellen McDougall in rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie. Picture: Manuel Harlan

West Yorkshire Playhouse has landed a pretty big fish in getting Hollywood star Greta Scacchi to come to Leeds. Films like Presumed Innocent and White Mischief confirmed Scacchi as a major Hollywood player.

In her later career, Scacchi, who has won an Emmy and has been nominated for both a Golden Globe and BAFTA, has taken to the stage. The lure of a fantastic part in one of the great American dramas and a hot young director combined to bring the Hollywood actor to the stage in Yorkshire. The great drama is Tennesse Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Two theatres – the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Liverpool Everyman have combined their might with one of British theatre’s most respected companies, Headlong, to make the production happen.

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Written in 1944, The Glass Menagerie was Williams’s first successful play and his first to be performed on Broadway, after which it went on the win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1945 and later a Pulitzer Prize.

The play tells the story of a dysfunctional family caught up in a claustrophobic world of nostalgia and regret, where fragile dreams are pitted against the brutality of the modern world. By night, Tom lives various lives via his trips to the movies. By day, he works in a factory. In the apartment he shares with mother Amanda and sister Laura, the tension is palpable.

The director charged with bringing the production to the stage is one of British theatre’s most highly regarded young directors, Ellen McDougall.It’s a big responsibility for any director. For the Playhouse, securing the services of McDougall is part of an autumn season that is deliberately concentrating on working with female directors, who still have to work surprisingly hard in an industry that is attempting to correct some mistakes of the past of under-representing certain sections of society.

While that is a concern of the Playhouse, McDougall’s focus is all on the play. She says when considering a project, it is all about the work.

“I think what it boils down to is it has to be a story that I care about telling, that I think says something important about the world we live in now, the way we treat one another, the things we live for as humans,” says McDougall. “I also really enjoy a challenge when it comes to staging – the invitation in the script or the story to do something theatrically surprising has always appealed to me.”

Through the story we meet Amanda, Tom’s mother, and his sister Laura, who walks with a limp as a result of suffering from polio. Amanda is desperate to see her married – something she engages Tom’s help with.

McDougall says the concept is intriguing. “The story is about many things, but one of them is betrayal and how easy it is to take the people you care about most for granted, and what it is like to live with shame. I found it very moving to read. Not least because of the fact that it is deeply autobiographical – Laura is based on Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose, who was given a lobotomy shortly after Tennessee had left home for good. The last line of his Memoirs is dedicated to her. And you feel this incredible sense of a life lived through the memory and love for someone who he felt guilty and sad about.”

• The Glass Menagerie, West Yorkshire Playhouse, September12 to October 3. Tickets 0113 2137700.