Review: Broken Glass @ the Vaudeville theatre
Discovering an Arthur Miller modern classic
Hardly ever has a play left me with so much to say and lost for words at the same time. This was a Miller first for me. No English graduate can go without studying Miller but I’ve never seen one of his plays performed on stage.
In Broken Glass a whole number of issues are brought to the stage. Yes, it is a play about the Holocaust, as Brooklyn native Sylvia Gellburg is left physically paralysed after seeing the shocking images of the German Reichskristallnacht in the US papers. It is also a play about psychoanalysis as local doctor Harry Hyman tries to treat Sylvia and uncover the psychological cause of her illness. Miller avoids the easy solution of repressed sexuality, a la Freud, and instead creates an intricate web of connections between Sylvia, her husband Phil and their surroundings. Through Sylvia’s illness, Phil’s own anxieties are uncovered and he is made to confront issues of religion and responsibility. Miller addresses persecution and victimisation, but even though there is a strong emphasis on the characters’ Jewish background, he leaves room for so much more.
The play is also about looking away. No one can understand why Sylvie is so concerned about the persecution of Jews happening thousands of miles away. Only she cannot turn a blind eye as she is literally left paralysed by the events. The far-away crisis forces its way into the lives and living rooms of this Brooklyn community. Without being preachy about it, the play touches upon issues of social responsibility. It’s not a question about whether the Holocaust could have been avoided, but how we live with ourselves. As the Arab Spring brings rebellion and violence, as rioters hit the streets of London, as Troy Davis is executed, as Wall Street is occupied and protests are ongoing in Spain and Greece, this play hits home. How far away really are these events? Are we not all just as connected as the characters within this play? In a way Miller opens up a Pandora’s Box of issues, many without a straightforward solution, but all worth considering. And all of that in the disguise of a domestic drama.
The cast superbly portray the relationships between their characters by truly working as an ensemble. There seems little point in highlighting the excellent performances by Antony Sher as the uptight Phil who sees his world crumble apart, or Tara Fitzgerald as Sylvia, a woman losing control over her body but not her wits. Stanley Townsend as Dr Hyman completes the triangle that is more like a Gordian knot.
Understatement defines the set design, as walls of chipped paint, bare floors and naked light bulbs evoke the atmosphere of a run-down asylum. A single cellist sets the atmosphere during scene changes, in which the characters haunt the stage like their own shadows.
Broken Glass is challenging, but also incredibly rich and gripping. I didn’t even have to write about the sex to make it interesting, as a particularly helpful theatregoer suggested to me.
Broken Glass runs until 10 December 2011 at the Vaudeville theatre.
Cordula Schnuer TheatreFix Guest Editor