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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
BROKEN GLASS
at the Tricycle Theatre

BERLIN TO BROOKLYN
By JOHN NATHAN

  Antony Sher and Lucy Cohu/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

Arthur Miller was in his late seventies when he wrote Broken Glass. But is late Miller, great Miller? This is the play that had been smouldering in the dramatist's brain for 40 years or more before the Bosnian war set it alight.
 
It is a play whose name is taken from Kristallnacht, when Jewish lives and the windows of Jewish businesses were shattered by rampaging Nazis in 1938, and whose heroine Sylvia Gellburg has become paralysed with a premonition of the Holocaust.
 
It is a play that implores its audience and the world to watch for signs of genocide and pleads for intervention. Between the play's world premiere at New York’s Booth Theatre in April 1994 and its U.K. premiere at London’s National Theatre the following August, 800,000 people were murdered during the Rwandan genocide. This is the play for which Arthur Miller drew deeply on his Jewish roots.
 
Set in 1930s Brooklyn, Iqbal Khan’s expressionistic production locates the action within a frame covered with peeling paint. Scenes are separated by the muscular strains of a single cello that winds up the play's tension and hints at the psychological pandemonium of its protagonists. It is, however, Antony Sher’s remarkable Phillip Gellburg that spells it out.
 
As the only Jew to work for his WASP bank-owning employer, Sher’s Gellburg goes about life shackled to the shame of being a Jew – the thing he most despises in others. It is a mesmerising portrait of uptight, self-loathing for which Sher, clad in a tight-fitting black suit (an earlier title of the play was The Man in Black) almost bursts a blood vessel.
 
On one level, Broken Glass is a mystery play – the mystery being how a perfectly healthy woman such as Sylvia Gellburg (Lucy Cohu) can lose the use of her legs after reading that Jews are being made to clean Berlin sidewalks on their hands and knees. Playing the role of detective is Nigel Lindsay’s manly, well-adjusted Dr Hyman who is as attracted to Sylvia's body as he is to curing her condition. He quickly realises that the paralysis is caused as much by the Gellburgs’ dysfunctional marriage as by a fear of persecution.
 
Iqbal’s production is not a flawless evening, nor is Miller’s the perfect play. Cohu is surely too young to play a woman who has been sexually neglected for 20 years. Much more convincing is her Brooklyn lilt and the serene stoicism with which she imbues her performance.
 
And even Miller – a master at combining the political and the personal – struggles to weave into one narrative strand the condition of a Brooklyn marriage and events in Berlin. But as is so often the case with the genius, intellectual barriers are bulldozed by a tide of emotion. This Miller may be late, but it is still great.
 


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