Hollywood star and six-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams is set to enchant the West End next week when she begins her run in a radically reimagined version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. She will play Amanda Wingfield, an overbearing matriarch who, abandoned by her husband and bringing up her two children, longs for elements of her youth.
It’s the first time Adams has trodden the boards in the West End, having built her reputation as one of the film industry’s most diverse actors. Used to bringing in hundreds of millions at the box office for features including Enchanted, The Fighter and Catch Me If You Can, Adams will perform to 640 people a night at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
At first glance Adams seems a little young to play family matriarch Amanda. But actually, at 47, she is almost bang on the money, with her character, based upon Williams’ own mother, aged around 48. It’s more that people just don’t see Adams as being near the end of her fifth decade.
“I suppose so,” says Herrin, the former artistic director of Headlong and director of hits including This House and Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. “With Hollywood commodifying and objectifying actresses, Amy feels like somebody who is not aggressively pushing back but leading by example, just following the work, not being overly interested in how she presents, not playing that glamorous game. She’s a working actress making strong choices.”
How has she been in the rehearsal room? “She’s very funny,” he says. “Surprisingly funny and actually very normal and not, in inverted commas, ‘Hollywoody’ in any way. She mucks in, she’s very generous, very nice with her time, very modest and humble and extremely talented and very bright. I’m not just saying this, it’s been an absolute pleasure and the surprise is she’s a completely unaffected, brilliant working actress. She wants to get it right, she wants to do well.”
Herrin had to get permission from the Tennessee Williams estate for this production to dramatically overhaul the role of Tom, one of Amanda’s sons. This is the first production where two actors play him at different stages of his life. The narrative will hang from both of these rethought performances, which Herrin hopes will bring new meaning to the play.
“She didn’t want to do a conventional thing, she wanted to really dig in and enjoy herself artistically,” says Herrin. “She wanted it to be meaningful and artistically satisfying, not just ‘wheel out the famous person’. She wanted it to be an invigorating artistic experience.”
Adams’ humour has found a home with Amanda, who Herrin describes as a self-pitying narcissist. “Amy is unlocking that side of her,” says Herrin. “She’s done a whole 360 vision of this woman and what makes her function.”
Herrin hopes his reimagining is rigorous enough that it would work at any point in time, avoiding the type of work that “wants to make something relevant in an inauthentic way” for a specific audience at a specific point. “Most traditional productions of the play lean into some kind of idealisation of the past, a kind of Victorian niceness, but this production strips all that stuff away. That creates really interesting angles to look at the story from. It’s haunted, really, and it’s about trying to chase down your younger self and consider the choices that you make and the choices that are handed to you.”
Still, Herrin sees reasons why one of the 20th century’s great plays is particularly relevant today. “The way that we’ve set it, it’s as if Tom is in 1968 and the material he’s looking at is 1936, a time of great change. Now is also a time of great change – post-pandemic we’re really looking at structures and the culture wars are raging and the right is in the ascendency.
“There’s a war that we’re trying to avoid tipping over into a world war. It feels extremely similar to both of the time frames used in our production, so there may well be some resonance there. It certainly feels like it’s an important time and a time of change.”
One way Herrin’s production won’t be radical, though, is in terms of pricing. He confirms that tickets definitely won’t exceed £150 for the top seats and that 12,000 tickets at £20 are available throughout the run, the first with his new company Second Half Productions. “I’m not an algorithm boffin but pricing is important,” he says. “£150 is the most expensive. We don’t want to be in the situation that Cock found themselves in.”
Earlier this month, a ticket holder for the Cock play starring Bridgerton’s Jonathan Bailey screenshotted a ticket costing £400; the result of ‘dynamic pricing’ where costs respond to high demand for tickets. On this topic, Herrin takes a realistic view: “I really don’t have an ethical problem if someone is prepared to pay a whack of money and that’s the only way they can see it, I’m very happy to take their money if they’re not going to notice it,” he says. “The thing that’s really important is the people who can’t afford it always have access to tickets as well so the people who can afford it aren’t pricing out the people who can’t.”
Even with huge star power, Herrin admits there’s still commercial pressure to get bums on seats, with “a lot of tickets to sell.” He’ll lose money on the £20 seats, but even so, he says, Amy Adams’ West End debut must be for everyone. “Theatre is a democratic medium. It is for everybody. If you want to see something, you should be able to.”