13th August 2011 matinée (preview)
Having gone to see Broken Glass without much previous knowledge (except that it was on at the Tricycle and boasted Anthony Sher in the cast) we were astonished to discover that Arthur Miller’s playwriting career spans seven decades, and that this play was written in the nineties. We were struck by the classical style, perfectly in keeping with its characters, all of whom seem to be trapped in their own history. It is as though decades later, Miller is able to distill the essence of his own experience into this deceptively simple play. It is almost impossible not to make links with his personal life, as in the references to an ordinary man marrying ‘out of his league’ by ensnaring a beautiful wife, and the more you read about him, the more of him you can see in the play. But it never feels forced – Miller has created a drama which feels very plausible, despite the bizarre events, and is all the more moving and thought-provoking for it.
The story revolves around middle-aged couple Phillip and Sylvia Gellburg, and the action begins in 1938 Brooklyn when we discover that Sylvia has developed paralysis, and that Doctors cannot find a physical cause. At the same time, she has become obsessed with reading about the events of Kristallnacht in the newspapers and the humiliation of the jews in Germany by the Nazis. Her friends and relatives believe there must be a link, but they cannot see what it would be, and certainly can’t seem to understand why an American would be interested in events so far away, let alone be concerned about them.
Doctor Hyman, reluctant at first to take on a ‘psychiatric’ case that is outside his area of expertise, but drawn like a moth to a flame, begins to attempt to unravel the cause of her hysterical paralysis. With slow precision, we are led through the initial ‘politeness’ of both husband and wife as they give stock answers to his personal questions, before revealing the more painful truths and contradictions, wrung out of them in their desperation for a cure. The play has no simplistic answers or messages, but we are constantly asked to consider the role of individuals in history, culminating in Hyman’s assertion that ‘everyone is persecuted’, but you can never find the persecutor, Hilter being one of the greatest ‘kvetchters’ of all. Phillip, desperate to assimilate, sees anti-semitism everywhere (whilst indulging in his own form of racism again ‘German jews’) and is plagued by the thought that people see him as a jew first and foremost. Yet as he begins to realise through his wife’s illness it is his own self-hatred which is ultimately holding them back.
This production is very simply done, with minimal props and furniture (we loved the little ashtrays fitted to the back of the chairs) with the couple’s double bed literally taking centre stage for most of the action. Anthony Sher, never afraid to show all the flaws and vulnerability in a character, presents a complex and compassionate portrait of Phillip Gellburg, whilst Tara Fitzgerald perfectly captures the descent from her initial denial to the painful self-discovery that follows. As the charismatic Doctor who can’t keep away, Stanley Townsend skillfully conveys the journey from curiosity to obsession, concealing his doubts with the perfect bedside manner.
If you look up this play in wikipedia, you’ll be told that the subject is ‘American Jewish assimilation, self-hatred and the European Nazi threat’. These ingredients are certainly present, but this play is so much more than the sum of its parts.