FringeReview UK 2019
Alix Sobler’s The Glass Piano, directed by Max Key features Declan Randall’s gleaming set and lights and Deborah Andrews’ costumes. Live piano on stage from Elizabeth Rossiter alternates between Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words and Gabriel Prokofiev’s score, particularly a waltz and spikier incidental music. Emma Laxton’s sound evokes winds and glass. Hubert Essakow choreographs. Till May 25th.
Where else could such theatricality and balletic poise co-exist, but in the shabby refurbed grandeur of the Print Room’s Coronet Theatre? With a crystalline polished floor, chandeliers, a necessarily more modern piano than the 1840s setting, and period costumes whose awkwardness is emphasised on disrobing, the Coronet breathes more magic than any theatre in London. The stage’s smoky depths command occasion, and everything they embark on is at least touched with distinction.
That’s the case in this world premiere, New York-based Alix Sobler’s The Glass Piano, directed by Max Key.
The real Alexandra – here played to an unforgettable clash of desire and consonants by Grace Molony – truly believed she swallowed a glass piano. It’s a well-known condition, providing a natural metaphor for the constraints of decorum freezing passion in court life – in this case Bavaria in the 1840s presided over by Ludwig I. He’s here a solipsistic lonely figure whose wife has run off feral into the woods. Not that he misses her, but her absent existence proves an obstacle: a glass piano of the mind – again. In fact the absent wife proves the occasion for imaginary glass swallowing.
As it is, Alexandra’s a glass rim of daily rituals, eating consommé only, edging round corridors and people with grinding slowness and making bath an hours-long ordeal with long-suffering Bavarian maid Galstina. She exists, doesn’t live, in the sloth lane. Alexandra’s one consolation is her silent concerto, not quite finished.
Enter Napoleon’s nephew, Lucien Bonaparte – Laurence Ubong Williams. He’s that thoroughly modern 1840s mix of decorous dash and rational perfectibility, and his philologist’s mind tips into the origins of things, that point where animal grunt turns language. Happily other new fads like phrenology pass him by and he’s as modern in his desire to teach Bavarian feral boys (nurtured by animals) as he is to teach the solipsistic king to write of others than himself in his halting rhymes: the reason he’s been sent for. Ubong Williams exudes that dash and quizzical optimism essential in proving he’s the catalyst to all that follows. ‘Nothing good comes from isolation, believe me, I have seen it.’ Lucien speaks with the authority of an insider-outsider: his cordial rages like a hectic.
Under Bonaparte’s influence, Ludwig begins to write love poems to the maid Galstina, who’s been his reciprocal love interest since his wife went feral, loping over hills alps and horse stables. He’s not quite told Galstina, only sent for her (an order she takes seven years to answer) though that’ll change.
Timothy Walker and Suzan Sylvester as Ludwig and Galstina exude comedic warmth and a degree of earthiness when loosed together. Walker’s Ludwig blusters nobly (you wonder what Peter Barnes might have made of him) while Galstina is pragmatically coy and coping, but suddenly eloquent. One feature of Sobler’s writing is never to write down for Galstina – who’s as erudite and philosophical as anyone else and more than stands up to the three royals.
Above all Bonaparte’s supremely marriageable and eager, Corsican arrivism apparently no bar after his uncle’s greatness (his father was a reluctant sub-emperor). He begins to dissolve Alexandra’s sense of inner glass. ‘Having the finest of everything is meaningless if you are trapped by your fineries. If you aren’t free to live.’ A piano’s no obstacle to union. The growing melt between him and Alexandra is heart-warming and delicate, full of gawky poise suddenly turning swan-like. Hubert Essakow makes full use of the depth but never overdoes the choreography. Their dance – co-existing with a flamboyant earthy one elsewhere – is the inevitable conclusion to Act One.
Declan Randall’s set and lights evoke castellated glamour and pits of solitude. The effect particularly at the end is a delicately etched glass inscription. The stage floor’s so polished that dresses, tables and Alexandra’s bathtubs cut precise reflections. Deborah Andrews’ costumes appear 1840s Beidermeier to a fault, in particular Alexandra’s flouncy floaty white dress.
Notably, there’s live piano on stage from the consummate Elizabeth Rossiter who alternates between Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words and Gabriel Prokofiev’s score, particularly a stunningly beautiful waltz and spikier incidental music. Invoking his grandfather and his younger contemporary Alexander Tcherepnin (for harmony, a curious scale that composer created), Prokofiev sashays a sound world near early Shostakovich Preludes with a dash of Satie. This might make it seem super-derivative. It isn’t, it’s an inheritance made notable by a unforgettable core waltz melody – Sobler suggests a description close to what Prokofiev produces – and some glassy, brittle music elsewhere. And Rossiter it transpires isn’t the only pianist.
Emma Laxton’s sound evokes high alp winds and tinkly glass at the opening and close. Eerily they unite. Despite the reverb potential, this is etched in, liminal but potent.
The wind-back crisis occurs when Bonaparte’s idealistic belief his past won’t count comes back when he lets drop a small detail. Unfortunately it’s the lynchpin of the monarchy, the reason the king can’t simply marry Galstina. From the start we’ve seen Ludwig’s bluster against divorce but there’s several moments of reversal to get through before we reach any settled conclusion. Whilst we do, things revert to their former rigidity. Alexandra stays stock-still in a corner of the palace, the king renounces then renounces his renunciation and the queen’s spotted slouching in stables.
‘Everyone finds their own way to be free’ Alexandra’s final answer to Lucien is poignant. As a comic fable turned dark, this is a touching metaphor for the constraints of those in monarchical succession, then as now. More importantly it suggests glass pianos we all swallow, triggers to freezing our life through fear and the occasions that implore, or demand we let them shatter. Yet those constraints create a glass concerto. A bewitching mix of deconstructive magic and fabulous therapy, it’s above all Molony who stamps the glass. Her stillness and poise, her clipped consonantal stoicism – and melt with Ubong Williams – brushes distinction into this already distinctive production.