Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London (***/*)
Well, this is a piece of work and for once, I truly don’t know where to start. First off, Paul Auster – shame on me – is not on my check list of much loved authors or cultural icons. That says more about me than him, a best-selling author with novels translated into 40 languages. Where have I been all my life – a rhetorical/metaphysical question that Auster’s own characters such as Paul Auster/Quinn, of City of Glass and his New York Trilogy would no doubt understand and appreciate!
Where do we get to in our lives seems to be, acutely, one of Auster’s major preoccupations if I’m reading him correctly and again, I gotta confess that my acquaintance with him is approximately two hours in the theatre, a read of Duncan Macmillan’s script (he is definitely on my cultural compass, love him) and an hour or so on Google.
An existentialist who writes in the film noir/crime thriller genre, a compulsive writer for whom language and its derivations are a vital, never ceasing line of enquiry as a construct that goes towards making up the human condition, are just, as I take it, some of his other ongoing concerns.
Then there is chance, coincidence, religion and from this production, a deep sense of trauma and protectiveness around children perhaps – and I do use the word lightly – that comes from his own childhood experience of seeing the small boy next to him die from a lightning strike whilst sheltering under a tree in a storm. Randomness. It could so easily have been him, Paul Auster.
Life, he sees, can so easily be changed, go in different directions, according to chance happenings and events. But watching this adaptation and Jack Tarlton’s child-man, Peter Stillmans, locked up by his father for nine years in a darkened room, my mind couldn’t but go back to other `real life’ incidents in recent years of children being locked away by adults. Tarlton’s albino-like stunted child, with cramped movements and high-pitched voice is a terrifying image.
`Small Peter’ it is who is initially centre stage but he is by no means the story’s centrifugal force which is triggered by a strange phone call in the middle of the night to a writer called Quinn, who writes crime novels under the name of William Wilson, but who later becomes Paul Auster.
Quinn is called into action as a private detective, to protect `small Peter’ when the father who locked him away is about to be set free from prison. Thus begins a chain of events that eventually climaxes in Quinn’s psychological collapse, a return literally to his naked self but in Leo Warner and 59 Productions stunning visual backdrop, set free into a universe recalling Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man painting.
Much else is recalled including the Tower of Babel, the Garden of Eden, America as the New World of soaring skyscrapers, New York as a place of brownstone apartments and dark alleys – in other words, a whole range of environments and psychological situations evoked partly from words but impressively from video projections and trompe l’oeil that merge and dissolve even as you look at them.
Visually and technically brilliant as they are in their own right, they also symbolise Quinn’s collapsing interior world.
Yet, despite these transformations and its sense of hurtling intrigue, both as a crime and psychological thriller, City of Glass came over to this viewer as strangely static. Maybe it takes a deeper knowledge of the Auster mind to really relish and get the most out of his interlacing narratives that feed off and around each other. As a newcomer and Auster debutante, City of Glass left me only sporadically engaged – `small Peter’ and Quinn’s collapse being the two moments, for me, of charged, heightened emotion and empathy.
Definitely one for Auster fans, it’s certainly sent me hurtling towards the books. And that can’t be bad!
City of Glass
Adapted for the stage by Duncan Macmillan
Based on the first novel of the New York Trilogy by Paul Auster and the graphic novel by Paul Auster and David Mazzucchelli
Vivienne Acheampong: Virginia and roles as cast
Mark Edel-Hunt: Quinn and roles as cast
Chris New: Quinn and roles as cast
Jack Tarlton: Stillmans and roles as cast
Charlie Cunningham: Daniel
Oscar Williams: Daniel
Adapted by Duncan Macmillan
Directed, Designed and Produced by: 59 Productions
Director: Leo Warner
Set Designer: Jenny Melville
Video Designer: Lysander Ashton
Lighting Designer: Matt Daw
Movement Director: Kim Brandstrup
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Composer: Nick Powell
Casting Director: Julia Horan CDG
Costume Designer: Molly Einchcomb
Dramaturg (HOME): Petra Tauscher
Animators: Joseph Pierce, Edward Stockton, Marco Sandeman and Nicol Scott
Associate Video Designer: Raphael Pimlott
Associate Lighting Designer: Leo Woolcock
Software Developers: Ollie Lindsey and Adam Child
D3 Programmer: Rowan Pitts
Lighting Programmer: Chris Hirst
Child Casting Director: Louis Hammond CDG
Dialect and Vocal Coach: Nia Lynn
Assistant Director (JMK Leverhulme Scholar): Piers Black-Hawkins
Assistant Sound Designer/Sound Operator: Harry Johnson
Consultant Magician: Simon Evans
A 59 Productions, HOME & Lyric Hammersmith production, in association with Karl Sydow, commissioned by 59 Productions.
World Premiere of City of Glass at HOME, Manchester, March 4, 2017
First perf at the Lyric Hammersmith, London, April 21, 2017
Runs to May 13, 2017 at Lyric Theatre Hammersmith