“If you’re alive, you’re afraid…but how you deal with fear, that’s what counts”
Broken Glass is one of Arthur Miller’s later works and so has often suffered by association from the weaker tail-end of Miller’s output, but this production at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, cast to the hilt, certainly makes the case for this play. Set in Brooklyn in 1938, Sylvia has lost the use of her legs after being traumatised by images in the newspaper from Kristallnacht and the news filtering through about the ever-growing extent of anti-Semitic activity in Europe under the Nazis. Her doctor diagnoses a hysterical paralysis but as he begins to investigate her life, he discovers that the problems may lie closer to home, in the truth behind her relationship with her fastidious husband, Phillip.
The Holocaust connections are actually secondary to the real storytelling here which is entirely about the Gellburgs’ marriage. And it is this point which has informed director Iqbal Khan’s interpretation: although ostensibly set in a specific time and place, the emotion involved is timeless and so rather than being a period piece, this production takes a metaphysical, ruminative approach. To ensure the contemplative mood, the interludes between the scenes are filled with Laura Moody’s expressive cello-playing, beautifully composed short solos from Grant Olding which are explosive with emotion and counterpoint the repression evident on stage.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better display of emotional constipation than Sher’s work here: on the face of it, the character of Phillip Gellburg is dull and unexciting but Sher invests him with layers upon layers of interest as a man utterly conflicted by his Jewishness. Proud to be the only Jew at his property firm, yet crawlingly blind to his boss’s barely concealed attitudes; at times malicious to his afflicted wife for fear of being thought responsible but also tender as can be when he is reminded of their deep love for each other. The tightly-coiled energy suppressed inside of him is manifestly evident in Sher’s rigid-backed performance and the way in which the intensity is maintained is something to behold.
As the paralysed Sylvia, Lucy Cohu is simply magnificent, suggestive of Meryl Streep at times, matching the complexity of emotions one often sees in Streep’s work: here a faded version of the vibrant woman of Phillip’s memories, muted and troubled by confusion and grief with occasional flashes of animation as long-hidden emotions are stirred, colour returning to her beautifully modulated voice and a gorgeous sensuality emerging.
And provoking that sensuality is Nigel Lindsay, in what one assumes will be his last straight acting role before surrendering to nightly green make-up applications as Shrek, who is excellent as the charming GP Harry Harman, rocking a pair of mighty fine riding boots (which I ended up finding strangely alluring too so one can’t blame Sylvia too much) and struggling to maintain his professional detachment in the face of the discoveries he is making of the personal lives of the Gellburgs and his growing affection for Sylvia.
But full credit has to go to the three supporting players too: Madeleine Potter works wonders with the meagrest of material as Harman’s wife, a fiercely intelligent person in herself and a true partner to her medic husband; Emily Bruni as Sylvia’s plain-spoken sister provides lots of dry humour and Brian Protheroe makes the most of his barely-there anti-Semitic boss.
Mike Britton’s design is beautifully done: opening the stage out to quite some depth and keeping it largely uncluttered forms the non-representational playing space. The marital bed that is at the root of so much trouble is ever-present, walls covered in peeling aquamarine paint suggest decay, clear screens occasionally provide a divide and also keep the passion of Moody’s cello playing contained from the actors.
Miller’s writing is well crafted here but I wasn’t fully convinced that the marriage of the personal and the political was so smoothly done: the evocation of Kristallnacht could even be seen as a shortcut to attempted deeper significance from what is a personal story about marriage. But a stellar ensemble led by astounding performances from Sher and Cohu perfectly complement Iqbal Khan’s interpretive production which works wonders on this play, teasing out an elegiac beauty from a metaphysical study of a deep identity crisis: very highly recommended.