The later plays of Arthur Miller - that is, almost anything written after A View from the Bridge in 1955 - tend to be viewed as a collection of duds and disappointments. One exception, however, is Broken Glass, which premiered in New York in 1994 and received a highly regarded staging at the National Theatre that same year, with Margot Leicester and Henry Goodman in the lead roles. Iqbal Khan’s excellent new production, which opened last week at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, casts Antony Sher and Lucy Cohu as the Gellburgs, Phillip and Sylvia, a Jewish couple in Brooklyn in 1938. News of the Kristallnacht - “the night of broken glass” in which the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes, businesses and places of worship and rounded up thousands for transportation to the concentration camps - reaches the couple and, hearing it, Sylvia is suddenly paralysed from the waist down. When the play opens, Phillip has called in Dr. Harry Hyman (Nigel Lindsay), whose diagnosis is that Sylvia is suffering from “hysterical paralysis” brought on by anxiety and fear. Hyman, attracted to Sylvia himself, begins picking at the seams of the Gellburg marriage to reveal a history of sexual dysfunction and occasional violence - a history that seems to point to Phillip, rather than Kristallnacht, as the cause of Sylvia’s condition.
Structured almost entirely as a series of duologues, the tone of Broken Glass is confiding and intimate, and Khan’s production - with a spare set design by Mike Britton (peeling wallpaper and a very significant bed) and onstage cello playing from Laura Moody - gives the piece just the kind of controlled intensity it needs. The play is, in Miller’s words, “full of ambiguities,” and part of its power rests in its reluctance to allow the audience to come to a final judgment on its characters. Phillip - dismissed initially as “a miserable little pisser” and “a dictator” by Hyman’s “shiksa” wife Margaret (Madeline Potter) - is gradually revealed to be a man tormented by his Jewishness, capable of both cruelty and tenderness. He boasts about his own and his son's achievements, crawls round his boss (Brian Protheroe) and treats Sylvia with a mixture of compassionate concern and bullying arrogance.
This was my first time seeing Sher live (I watched his wonderful performance as Leontes in the RSC Winter’s Tale on DVD last week) and the actor’s wire-taut intensity is indeed something to behold. I know people who find Sher “too much” on stage - excessive, "actorly" - yet his nuanced performance here is pitched to perfection. He’s well-matched by the radiant Cohu who brings pain, humour, sensuality, ordinariness and mystery to Sylvia. “It's like she's connected to some … truth that other people are blind to,” Hyman muses and that’s exactly how Cohu plays her. (Visually and vocally, the actress sometimes evokes Meryl Streep here and she certainly doesn’t suffer by the comparison.) Lindsay is superb in a tricky role (and he’s surely the only actor to have played both a Jewish doctor and a Muslim-convert suicide bomber [in Chris Morris's Four Lions] in one year!), while the always-interesting Potter, and Emily Bruni as Sylvia’s sister, also register strongly.
Even so, it’s possible to diagnose a few problems with the play itself. The primary one, I think, is Broken Glass’s referencing of Kristallnacht. The drama’s interweaving of the personal with the social and the political isn’t as successful as in Miller’s best work. Nazi atrocity functions almost as a MacGuffin here; what Miller has written is, ultimately, a marriage play, and one in which a few Freudian banalities are excavated. All this being said, Miller still has an advantage over most contemporary playwrights: he knew how to dramatise, and how to employ the kinds of details that hook and involve an audience. (There’s a marvellously evocative late passage when Phillip recalls buying furniture for the family home.) He also refuses to treat his characters with contempt. A deep compassion runs through Broken Glass, and it helps the play to transcend its more contrived moments. Khan’s is as good a staging as one could wish for: sensitive, astute, elegant, and very moving. This was my first (long overdue) visit to the Tricycle; I look forward to seeing more plays at the venue in future.