BROKEN GLASS: The ‘political’ in Miller, and all good playwrights, is expressed on the stage through the decisions certain people make when faced by certain obstacles in certain environments. It is achieved through human behaviour, in other words – the true medium of expression of the theatre. It is not achieved by crowbarring thinly-veiled manifestos into the characters’ verbal exchanges nor by m
Broken Glass by Arthur Miller
The Tricycle Theatre
For those familiar with The Tricycle’s recent political smash-hits, The Great Game
(about the war in Afghanistan) and Women, Power and Politics
(take a guess), you’re probably used to a definition of ‘political theatre’ that, in terms of form, arguably resembles the lecture or speech at a political party conference: facts, figures, dates and political rhetoric placed variously in the mouths of characters. Exhilarating, relevant and informative for some; for others, a haunting flashback to secondary school and Model United Nations debates. However you look at it, though, here is undeniably ‘Britain’s foremost political theatre’ (The Guardian).
So I was very intrigued by how The Tricycle would approach a revival of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass
. Although part of its remit is to present ‘classic’ texts, here is a play that nonetheless still lends itself to the ‘political’: Sylvia (played by Lucy Cohu), a Jewish wife in 1930s Brooklyn, has inexplicably lost the use of her legs, despite exhibiting no medical anomalies. The only obvious peculiarity in her demeanour is an obsession with newspaper images of Kristallnacht, which is concurrently taking place in Europe.
Enormous ‘political’ potential, right? And it would appear that this Tricycle acquires an engine from somewhere, revs it, and drives headlong at this. Despite a relatively bare set, Iqbal Khan’s production is otherwise steeped in precise historical replication – the percentage play when artists want to ‘do justice’ to something. It’s difficult not to admire the attention to detail in the costumes, accents, mannerisms, properties, and hairstyles/make-up. It’s sort of like a living museum – with strongly politico-historical articles in the programme supplying commentary.
So, ‘Britain’s foremost political theatre’ strikes again…or does it?
Most people know two facts about Miller if they know one. The first is that he married Marilyn Monroe. The other is that he wrote The Crucible
as an allegory on the McCarthy witch-hunts. Now, go on YouTube. Find the interview with him and Daniel Day Lewis discussing the film of The Crucible
(which Day Lewis stars in). Note what Miller chooses to talk about because it’s very revealing. He talks about the characters, their personal histories, desires, problems and choices; he repeatedly asserts it’s ‘the story’ that people are most enamoured with; and he even brushes off an opportunity to discuss the play’s precise political context with ‘Ah, whenever I wrote it…’
He doesn’t go anywhere near McCarthyism, HUAC or the 1950s, which is what our pub-quiz minds are all waiting for him to talk about. He prefers terms and ideas that are more universal and humanly-felt than encyclopaedia timelines. And this leads us to the crux: the ‘political’ in Miller, and all good playwrights, is expressed on the stage through the decisions certain people make when faced by certain obstacles in certain environments. It is achieved through human behaviour, in other words – the true medium of expression of the theatre. It is not achieved by crowbarring thinly-veiled manifestos into the characters’ verbal exchanges nor by meticulous historical reconstruction alone.
And this is where the production falls apart. Its chosen approach, this simplistic interpretation of ‘political theatre’ that we’re used to at The Tricycle, just can’t cope with all that Broken Glass
demands. The play never gives you the easy option of the political rant. Rather, you’ve got to put human life on stage: huge, swelling, complex, emotional, lyrical life that ‘does justice’ to Miller’s towering soul, and not simply the minutiae of the times about which he writes.
So the characterisations, in their rigid attempts to be ‘true’ to 1930s Brooklyn Jews, are utterly one-dimensional: having the right intonation or gesture is often preferred to committing to the intensity required in the scene. And the script appears to have been worked in a way that reveals little understanding of situation, action, or character progression, with characters’ true and deeper motivations lost through superficial stage business and a preoccupation with the mere content of the dialogue.
In other words, the necessary tools to fulfil what are normally understood as the non-political demands of this play are totally absent – though as I just argued above, these demands actually constitute the play’s true political heart and essence. Simply, there was no life on stage and we needed it. The only thing that keeps you going is Miller, who still manages to wing his beautiful way to your feelings, despite the concrete overcoat of this production
Broken Glass by Arthur Miller
The Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR
Thurs 30 Sep 2010 - Sat 27 Nov 2010
Midweek Mat at 2pm – Wed 13 Oct, Wed 20 Oct, Wed 10 Nov, Wed 17 Nov
£12 Monday 8pm, Midweek Mats 2pm
£18 Tuesday – Friday 8pm, Saturday 4pm
£22 Saturday 8pm