Brighton Fringe 2016
Jerry Lyne directs Arthur Miller’s late masterpiece Broken Glass from 1994, at the New Venture Theatre’s relatively newly-refurbished Upstairs space. High production values and a large team showcase NVT’s backstage talent as well as the acting. Till May 21st.
Jerry Lyne directs Arthur Miller’s late masterpiece Broken Glass from 1994, at the New Venture Theatre Upstairs.
Miller took 40 years to write this play; late on it underwent revision, some superb material inserted last. From the 1980s the British – particularly director David Thacker – kept Miller’s stock high whilst his reputation languished in the States.
November 1938. Sylvia Gellburg suddenly develops unaccountable paralysis. She’s terrified by news of Kristallnacht where Nazis force old men to clean streets with toothbrushes. Her husband Philip who spends his life effacing his Jewishness, says he can’t understand it. He works for an anti-Semite who helps the Gellburgs’ son to West Point, a then anomalous Jewish career soldier. As we discover, access isn’t acceptance.
We open in Dr Harry Hyman’s office where Philip’s subjected to the terrifying laugh of specifically non-Jewish Margaret Hymans played as a scintillating vignette by Jen Ley. Hyman (rarely Harry) is a horse-riding GP and amateur Freudian, his apparently un-Jewish horsemanship in fact inherited from Odessa horse-dealers he informs Philip later. The play revels in these stereotype-breakers and occasional makers like un-anxious Margaret.
Hyman thinks he can help. Philip masks his inability to make love to his wife in bravado till Hyman learns more, confronting Sylvia who Philip concedes ‘could have run the Federal Reserve’ if she’d been a man, lamenting giving up business to marry. Bedridden, Sylvia still dispenses advice to her offstage nephew.
Bob Ryder’s Philip the mannequin encased in black spends the performance peeling it off, crumbling into a yowl of humanity as more is stripped from him.
Growing attraction between Sylvia and Hyman manifests in his increasingly urgent pleas to reveal what’s holding her down, his warnings to her health, her ‘beautiful body’. Sylvia kisses Hyman. Philip has his suspicions, wanting other opinions; so does Hyman. What Hyman uncovers increases his compassion for them both.
Sylvia’s reaction to Kristallnacht’s a symptom of something she’s denying. Miller subverts Jewish typification to confront greater issues of identity. Oliver Maigniez invests the right level of swooping passion – he’s believably the tall local heart-throb exuding élan but balancing authority with voluble watchfulness. Janice Jones as Sylvia is forced to act upright in bed, thus her face expresses everything her body can’t. Her vehemence too especially towards the end, builds a performance of stature. ‘What did I do with my life?… I took better care of my shoes.’
Praise too for the way that her sister, common-sense Harriet played by Lyn Snowdon is able to lift Jones in role from wheelchair to bed so that at no time does Jones’ Sylvia get out of bed when the lights dim. Maigniez and others manage this; it’s one of the production’s minor miracles that such movement directions are executed so fluently, essential as it is. Snowdon’s blunt-speaking younger sister acts as similar chorus to Ley’s Margaret.
Meanwhile Philip who’s given bad advice honestly, discovers the depths of contempt Mel Shiri’s Stanton Case holds for him. Catastrophe falls unexpectedly.
The play moves in duets. Just before the climactic scene we’re finally treated to a trio Miller inserted almost last, where Sylvia, Margaret and Harriet reflect on illness and humanity. Lyne has beautifully positioned this downstage centre, so its valedictory commentary by two characters isn’t lost, nor its relation to the final scenes. It’s extrovert Margaret who notes acutely of a ward of new-born babies how one lies ‘stiff as a banker… one happy as a young horse. The next one is Miss Dreary, already worried about her hemline drooping.’ Her point is you’re born with your nature; Margaret’s sparkling affirmation bounces off her husband’s socialist beliefs.
This is how the Upstairs should be used. Jezz Bowden’s sound catches Klezmer-like inflections with a dark aural suggestiveness. Pat Boxall heads the best lighting team I’ve ever seen at NVT – particularly effective in shimmering light over the bed. Simon Glazier’s set gratefully soaks it in, from the walnut medical desk downstage right to the bed stage left with its silken turquoise; and small chair and table upstage centre functioning as office. Each is period. Best is the authentic copy of contemporary bestseller Anthony Adverse with a palpably original-looking 1930s cover, as if mint; and New York Times (though was that a colour photo inside?). Jerry Lyne’s directed some superb things, but this must be one of the finest.