Femi Elufowoju Jr. takes a leap of faith in his latest production of The Glass Menagerie at Arcola Theatre.
The Glass Menagerie was a defining moment for author Tennessee Williams and for American theatre. The play seen as an American classic was an ode to Tennessee’s life that tells the tale of love, abandonment, and bitterness.
But this isn’t the biggest task taken on by the award-winning actor and director if anything it is just another step on his very successful ladder. As one of the first theatre directors of African descent to establish a national tour company in the UK, Tiata Fahodzi he has had great success directing and presenting over 30 plays; his actor credits are extensive in both film and theatre.
I spoke to Femi to discuss The Glass Menagerie, its themes, the passion behind his works and the universal themes they share…
Introduce yourself …
Femi Elufowoju Jr. born in Hammersmith of Nigerian parentage. I am performer-director.
Your latest production The Glass Menagerie sees you take on one of the most celebrated plays in American drama which catapulted Tennessee Williams to the heights of his fame. What made you take on such a huge challenge?
The play was written in 1944, five years after the end of the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialised world (and the start of World War II), and was drawn from the author’s own immediate family. One of the beauties of our work telling stories in theatre is reimagining how the experience of an original story resonates universally. This is the central attraction to this play. How does the narrow focus on the challenges faced by the Wingfield family connect with any other household living under the same conditions, during the same decade, in the same town.
So the play was pretty much an autobiography of Tennessee’s life, were any adaptions made and if so how did you keep the essence of the story?
99.9% is true to text. I have adhered to the St Louis setting but given the family a non-traditional new make-up. The 0.01% changes to the text include swapping the D.A.R (Daughters of the American Revolution) with the D.O.I. (Daughters of Isis), a distinguished Black woman’s organisation more appropriate than the D.A.R, which at the time prohibited Black members for ancestral reasons. Offensive names such as ‘darkie’ or ‘negro‘ are replaced with ‘maid‘ and ‘servant’. Despite these variances, the story of the domineering, overbearing Southern mother, an ambitious fantasist son and his emotionally fragile mentally absent sister is retained wholeheartedly.
Who in the audience do you think will get the most out of this play, what message does it convey?
Our rehearsal process has been insightful in discovering the prophetic visionary and sometimes modest qualities possessed by this writer. If you consider the insular approach to Williams’ writing (the canon of his work suggests he writes from a position of self), we constantly marvel at the encyclopedic range of his own personal world. His plays literally touch the many facets of the human condition- love, power, sexuality, loss, internal strife, science, class and much more. All enveloped in vivid imagery, gregarious humour, music, and poetry. This is a play for everyone.
You recently won the Off West End Theatre Award for best director for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. This story, like The Glass Menagerie, looks at the strength of women in circumstances out of their control, their plight and their struggles. Are the stories of women something you enjoy shedding light on?
The trend of my most provocative work is not gender-driven. If there is a commonality between them it has to be my fascination with broken allegiances. Bonded, Bone, Medea, The Gods are not to Blame, The Estate, Iya–lle, Blues for an Alabama Sky, Hoard plus the two aforementioned all dealt with this common theme. I just love stories that explore the complexities of reconciliation and sometimes the severe bi-products of conflict which bring us close to hope or down to our knees. Alabama Sky, Hoard plus the two aforementioned all dealt with this common theme. I just love stories that explore the complexities of reconciliation and sometimes the severe bi-products of conflict which bring us close to hope or down to our knees.
Can you tell us about the casting process how was the decision made as to who would be able to tell this story and do it justice?
We deployed casting director Nadine Rennie, compiled lists of our industry’s great and emerging talent. The ultimate decision was to cast the best relatively unknown set of actors that presented themselves as proficient storytellers and great potential ensemble members. I have taken a huge risk specifically with this company, as they are all relatively new to the London stage.
Do you have a favourite line or exchange from the play?
Tom Wingfield’s opening monologue has arguably the most poignant set of sentences. I have tricks in my pocket; I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. Tennessee Williams gives us an opportunity to examine and present with ease the universality of his play.
What has been the biggest challenge and biggest reward directing the production?
Working with actors oblivious to my working methods and conveying the overall ethos and potential impact of my vision.
If you were to choose any film, novel, or play to adapt what would it be and why?
David Mamet’s The Untouchables (1987 film directed by Brian de Palma). The world deserves seeing Al Capone and his capers have their day on stage.
It was announced last year that you’ll be working on your first feature film, are you excited to take on this role, how different do you think the experience will be from directing plays?
The approach to film-making is a very different one to producing and staging work in the theatre. The complexities are multiple and the scale of moving parts more epic. I am looking forward to the challenge ahead when that time eventually arrives. The best part of the interface is, of course, my total delight in working with actors. Very exciting.
What has been the most memorable moment in your career or on your journey to becoming a director?
Two moments, ten years ago my production of Oladipo Agboloaje’s Iya–lle (the first wife) being nominated for an Olivier Award and my Off West Theatre Award for Best Director for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives early this year.
The Glass Menagerie runs until July 13th, 2019 at the Arcola Theatre. Find out more and book tickets here.