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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville


  Brian Protheroe and Antony Sher/ Ph: John Haynes

How good is Broken Glass? If Director Iqbal Khan’s daringly expressionistic production of Arthur Miller’s psychological drama proves anything, it is that Miller’s late play – often criticized for the clumsy conjoining of events in pre-Second World War Brooklyn with those in Nazi Berlin – is, in fact, one of the author’s finest.
Written when Miller was 78 and first seen in 1994, the mystery at the play’s core concerns Sylvia, the bed and wheelchair-bound wife of Phillip Gellburg. Sylvia has lost the use of her legs ever since she started reading reports of Jewish persecution in Germany. Hyman, her doctor, finds no physical cause for the condition, though there are plenty of clues, mostly connected to Sylvia’s sexless marriage and her husband Phillip, the black-suited, uptight, self-hating Jew who yearns for acceptance by mainstream non-Jewish society and hates every Jewish inch of his Jewish face, and every Jewish syllable in his Jewish-sounding name that prevents him from being just like them.
It is a role in which Antony Sher is nothing less than barnstorming. The sheer commitment of his performance brings to mind Sher’s RSC heydays as Richard III and Tamburlaine the Great. Only instead of the athletic physicality that he brought to those murderous roles his Gellburg is straitjacketed by neuroses. The opposite of the expansive, expressive stereotype, Gellburg is a repressed, humorless fellow. You would be hard-pushed to come up with a better description of him than that offered by Hyman’s wife: “miserable little pisser.”
Sher’s portrait of the man appeared calculated and overblown when Khan’s production received its first outing at north London’s intimate Tricycle Theatre. Here that big, fat performance is exactly what is needed to fill a West End stage. And Sher has also had time to add nuance, revealing Gellburg’s touching sense of his own ridiculousness.
Khan’s directorial masterstroke is to suspend Miller’s realism in an expressionistic design by Mike Britton. A series of walls covered in blistered paint culminate in a translucent curtain behind which cellist Laura Moody fills the gaps between scenes with beautifully played angst-ridden strains composed by Grant Olding.
Britton apparently took his cue for his design from pictures of decaying mental institutions. But the reason it works so well here is that whereas in other productions you can feel Miller’s plot laboring to link events in Berlin and Brooklyn, the geography now becomes completely irrelevant with the whole caboodle set in Britton’s strange hinterland.
Of the acting it says a lot about Tara Fitzgerald’s sexually neglected yet poised Sylvia, and Stanley Townsend’s seductively smooth Doctor Hyman, that neither performance is overshadowed by the spectacular control of Sher’s Gellburg. There is no better acting to be found in the West End at the moment. And for anyone who dismisses Miller’s late work as being second rate, Khan’s production makes the strongest possible case that Broken Glass should placed if not in the top tier of Miller’s masterpieces, such as Death of a Salesman or The Crucible, then perhaps one or two shelves down alongside, say, The Price and just beneath A View from the Bridge. It is that good.


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