Entertainment & Arts

Actress 'feels a traitor' for swapping US for West End

Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption Jones plays Amanda Wingfield, a former Southern belle who has fallen on hard times

Cherry Jones - known to TV fans as President Allison Taylor in drama series 24 - is hitting the London stage in Tennessee Williams classic The Glass Menagerie.

She says she's split between loving the play and wanting to be back home at a politically crucial time in the US.

Jones played President Taylor in two series of 24, from 2009 to 2010. Many saw a distinct suggestion of Hillary Clinton in her appearance and characterisation.

But the actress says none of that gave her an extra reason to back Clinton in last November's US presidential elections.

"I didn't need any extra anything," she told the BBC. "We were all doing everything we could to support Hillary, and keep at bay the darkness that has now descended over America because of our own ignorance and arrogance.

"We are in this moment self-destructing. Even in the Vietnam War, we haven't seen people mobilise the way they're mobilising now."

'Unique talent'

Jones, one of America's most respected stage actresses, stars alongside her countryman Michael Esper in Williams' intense family drama.

Both are as happy to talk about politics as The Glass Menagerie, a production seen at last year's Edinburgh Festival that is now running in London's West End.

Esper, a 40 year-old New Yorker, recently appeared in London in the David Bowie musical Lazarus.

"When I was here before the election, people initially thought Donald Trump was almost funny and often they'd treat him as a harmless joke," he told the BBC.

"I think now reality has set in. America now has a president who's a constituency of one.

"For me Trump represents the worst of America, while Tennessee Williams was a creative genius Americans should be proud of. So it's a delight to be in the play."

Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption Esper plays Tom, the angst-ridden son of Jones's character

Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie in 1944. A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof later brought him money and worldwide fame, but his early "memory play" had been an extraordinary achievement for a young writer.

"Tennessee was a poet, a rebel and a gay man," says Jones. "He was a unique talent and chose his own path.

"He's influenced other writers, but I don't think anyone has ever quite been like him."

Esper's role of Tom is usually seen as a self-portrait by the playwright, whose real first name was Thomas.

"The extraordinary thing about the way the lines and the structure work is they don't feel almost three-quarters of a century old," he says.

"His humour and the moments of lyricism feel contemporary. The four characters on stage relate in a way which still means something today."

Humour and emotion

Jones too is full of admiration for Williams the writer.

"For instance, he sets up superbly the arrival of the 'Gentleman Caller' in the second part of the play, who my character hopes will marry her daughter.

"And when he arrives there's so much humour and emotion that the audience is laughing one moment and then suddenly dead silent.

"At the risk of sounding like a flatterer, British audiences seem good at listening and picking up the nuances of what's being said."

Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption Brian J Smith appears as the play's enigmatic 'Gentleman Caller'

Esper, though, says there has been a downside to his extended stay east of the Atlantic.

"Part of me feels I really want to be back in my community and being part of the protest against Trump.

"You can't say we need to sit back and just bide our time while he's in office."

Trump concerns

"Most of the people I know have taken an incredibly activist stance and that's exactly the right thing," Esper continues.

"Certainly I had no love for Ronald Reagan, but as president I think he had respect for the tenets of democracy.

"Donald Trump is already violating the constitution and destroying the country and humiliating us internationally."

Jones has long been open about being a lesbian. So is she anxious about President Trump's views on homosexuality?

In America some gay people have expressed fears about policies which might be put forward.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jones appeared with Kiefer Sutherland in two seasons of 24

"Who knows what may emerge?" says the 60-year-old. "But for now, Donald Trump seems to have a ton of gay friends he's okay with - especially if they're white and gay.

"My worry is what would happen if he were indicted or impeached or gotten rid of. Then we'd have [vice president] Mike Pence in charge, and he tried to pass bills [as governor] in the state of Indiana which were just outrageous.

"If Pence were in the White House I would worry about policies relating to gay people."

"It's wonderful we're appearing in a work by one of America's greatest gay writers," Jones continues. "But like Michael, part of me feels a traitor for being away and enjoying myself.

"At the end of the run, I look forward to going back and getting to work."

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York's Theatre in London until 29 April.

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