Thursday, 13 October 2011

‘BROKEN GLASS’ by Arthur Miller @ The Tricycle Theatre, now @ Vaudeville Theatre, West End

‘BROKEN GLASS’ by Arthur Miller @ The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
Now @ Vaudeville Theatre until 10th December

Arthur Miller’s ‘Broken Glass’ could have been better than it was. It wasn’t a bad play – don’t get me wrong. The performances were on the whole very strong, the story one could tell had the potential to be very powerful, the theatrical execution was justly understated and added tone. With Arthur Miller’s script at its heart, to me, this play had everything it needed to work. Yet it didn’t. Well, not completely.

The story follows Phillip, a hardworking Jewish man obsessed with work and his own desire to be assimilated into New York aristocracy. Phillip is suddenly shocked and upset to find his wife, Sylvia, unable to walk, seemingly paralysed after reading newspaper reports of Kristallnacht in Germany. An enigmatic Dr. Harry Hyman is called in who uncovers the psychosis of Sylvia’s obsession and points its relationship to her husband’s own personality and deepest desires. The most interesting element of this play is the paradigm of projected fear, sexual attraction, complex love and self-hate that forms itself. We are drawn in through the juxtaposition of the two very different dysfunctional couples: the ‘ladies man’ Dr. Hyman and his irrepressibly upbeat non-Jewish wife, versus the stuffy and uptight Phillip and his Jewish wife Sylvia, the apple of his eye now chair or bed-bound. Both men love their wives though appear governed by forces that they feel are out of their control and that therefore take them away from their wives. Hyman, by his wandering eye for women, a leftover of his Casanova days of youth, now finding focus on Sylvia; Phillip, by his need to be far away from his Jewish origins (shown in his inability to empathise with those suffering in Germany and his need to disassociate himself from the Jewish community of New York in front of his employer). In this way, much in the play pivots on Sylvia. And therein lies the rub. Sylvia’s character seems to not carry well in the story and in a sense starts a chain of discrepancies in which other characters appear not to tally either. Her relationship with her doctor is on the brink of an affair, his lusting verging on tipping her over the edge into adultery though paradoxically bringing feeling to her legs. Yet she is supposed to still love her husband. Hyman loves his wife yet seduces Sylvia in an ambiguous manner where we are not certain if it may be a test of her disability or a genuine amorous approach behind Phillip’s back. Either way, Hyman’s relationship with Phillip seems very genuine and well-meaning and it is hard to believe that he would do that to him as he is aware on some level that he is Phillip’s only friend.
Likewise Sylvia appears by the second act to have a friendship with Hyman’s wife and does not appear to feel any guilt for the illicit closeness she and Dr. Hyman enjoyed. The ways in which the different characters come to interact appear to get more and more confusing and unbelievable even though the concepts behind the play strengthen. In the second act, Phillip comes to understand that his dictatorial stance with his wife in the past, his prevention of her humanity, combined with the lack of sexual attention and (most important) hatred of all things Jewish (as if it were a bad word), has morphed him in her mind into a Hitler figure of sorts, an unfeeling tyrant. It is him in fact that has paralysed her. This seems a surprise to the audience as many lines in the script are given over to the amount of love Philip has for her and it is hard to imagine that he has been so unfeeling as to be the sole cause of her disability. We learn how she is the reason he works so hard and she is clearly the one and only love of his life, even if he cannot show it or cannot make love to her. All in all, by the time the realization comes to Philip in the play, the audience are half an hour ahead of him and so his sudden enlightenment as to his self-loathing takes on a slightly comedic element that I am sure was not intended by Miller. Sylvia getting her abilities back and Philip being bed-ridden after a heart attack seems positively over the top and unnecessarily symbolic. By the end I got the sense that the play was intended to have the effect of, say, a piece like Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ but fell well short. I enjoyed the play mainly due to the basic concept of a Jewish person being unable to function due to sympathy for other Jews suffering far away and another Jewish person being unable to empathise due to the need to function in a land far away from other Jews. This dichotomy alone made the play worth a watch. I just hope that the nuances of the character’s interactions are made more realistic when the play moves to the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End. I fear the replacement of Tara Fitzgerald as Sylvia may help in this area. Although she generally performed well, she certainly stood out as least convincing on stage.                   

Jana Manuelpillai

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