“The Glass Imaginary”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2022

Jeremy Malies at Greenside @ Infirmary Street
12 September 2022

The Glass Imaginary by a company called The Improvised Play is a great name for a show, and the wit extends beyond the title across every aspect of the offerings from this engaging and technically accomplished group.

I arrived in a fog of misconceptions, believing that this might be something along the lines of “Impromptu Shakespeare” where we would throw the title of a Williams play at the cast – perhaps with some major thematic twist – and expect them to perform the text largely as we know it.

Wrong! This is a true exercise in improvisation. Each audience sees a totally different play created on the fly. Cynic that I am, I asked an acquaintance in a media lounge who had seen the group what he thought. Every bit as enthusiastic as me, he soon gave me to understand that my experience had been totally different to his.

Perhaps knowing already that they are preaching to the choir insofar as the audience are all Tennessee Williams diehards, the company pitch this at a high level. There is not a faded southern belle or overbearing matriarch in sight though I caught one mention of a gentleman caller.

At the beginning of the performance, we’re asked if somebody wants to mention a family heirloom that is dear to them, so I volunteer my great-aunt’s fountain pen. And we’re off. The actors proceed to improvise an archetypal Williams vignette around the theme of creative writing. A character who has been baking compulsively is encouraged by her more literate neighbour to begin writing poetry with the pen.

The community created for us revolves around a factory manufacturing wooden boxes. The owner is lecherous, in an unhappy marriage and – hating himself for it and confounding his better nature – initially asks a woman in his employ to work unpaid overtime before suggesting that she might be able to please him in other ways. We leave them in a jazz bar. He is profoundly unpleasant, but the role the performer creates for himself is nuanced and never degenerates into caricature. I believed in the pair sufficiently that I was reassuring myself that the outcome might not be too sordid.

It’s always dangerous (and irresponsible) to ventriloquize for a writer but I know for sure that while naturally judgmental, Williams usually erred towards the positive. The precise, mannered stage directions show rigour, but otherwise the author never took himself or his work too seriously.

A fundamentally irreverent and cheerful soul, I think Williams would be charmed that the world he created is still motivating a talented set of young actors to want to people it for him. The playlets created during this run juggled his major topics of character flaws stemming from addiction, repressed longings as well as the myths and symbols from the poetry of his beloved Hart Crane. Even if you didn’t warm to all this – and I did despite my initial confusion and skepticism – it’s an exercise showing great integrity and discipline. There was not one easy or cheap gag throughout the 55 minutes.

I don’t think anybody was going to end up totally happy in the play I saw, and their trajectories were already set out for them. Yes, it’s another writer but this excellent project underlined that there really are no second acts in American lives.

All of the actors excelled with the notoriously difficult Mississippi Delta elongated vowels, and with even a half-competent director they would absolutely nail any of Williams’ plays should they ever perform a known text. This probably sets the bar too low for such an adventurous company and if they come back to Edinburgh in 2023 it will be with something totally new.

But if they return it will be with different props. I was at the last performance of the run and at the end saw something that was new to me even across 40 years of theatre-going. After the curtain call, the cast invited the audience to take any prop they fancied, and as I headed up the hill to South Bridge, I saw a grateful local loading some thoroughly decent furniture into his estate car. The kindness of strangers …