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Broken Glass

Arthur Miller
Watermill, Newbury
(2005)

Broken Glass publicity graphic

The Watermill Theatre's production of this rarely performed work by Arthur Miller could hardly be more timely given the recent death of the playwright.

All credit to director Andy Brereton for giving theatregoers the opportunity to see something by Miller other than the customary Crucible or Death of a Salesman. RSC take note! - its winter season sees a production of the former.

Broken Glass, which premiered at the National Theatre in 1994, however, is late rather than great Miller. Though acclaimed by critics here a decade ago, the piece has a major flaw which it shares with the much earlier After the Fall.

There, Miller sets an examination of guilt and betrayal within a relationship many took to be closely modelled on that of the playwright and the late Marilyn Monroe, within the wider context of McCarthyism and the Holocaust.

Then, some critics felt the connection crass, albeit sincere enough. Broken Glass, which is set in America in the 1930s against the backdrop of the brutal rise to power in Germany of the Nazis, seems to attempt something similar.

American housewife Sylvia Gellburg who has become increasingly obsessed with the hatred meted out to the Jews, suddenly becomes paralysed from the waist down. However, doctors can find nothing physically wrong with her. The problem, it transpires, is in her mind and her husband's denial of his Jewishness, manifested in his overwhelming need to integrate with the goyim.

That is a bald, reductive statement of the play and of course, being Miller, it is more complicated and much better written than that. The play itself was prompted by the genocidal massacres taking place in Rwanda at the time of writing. The broken glass of the title is both that of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis targeted Jewish homes and premises in an orgy of violence, and the glass broken underfoot by newly-weds in the Jewish marriage ceremony.

Miller writes with his customary sense of moral urgency and explores with a great deal of subtlety and skill Phillip Gellburg's increasing awareness of the cost to himself, his wife and his marriage of his attempts to suppress his Jewishness and the bigotry he has sought not to see until disaster strikes.

But while the play touches on many of Miller's customary themes, the abuse of power, the cost to ourselves when we compromise who we are, the playwright, for me, fails to weave the central idea and the metaphor of paralysis into the writing sufficiently well. And I have to say I winced at lines like, "Is not her fear of Nazis because she feels extremely vulnerable?" and "It's like she sees some truth other people are afraid of".

There is a terrific performance in this production by Jenny Quayle as Sylvia Gellburg and she's matched in the closing scene by David Fielder as Phillip, albeit that the shock ending feels more than a little melodramatic. Patrick Poletti is rather stiff as Dr Harry Hyman, while Margaret Lucking as his wife and Una McNulty as Harriet never escape a two-dimensional caricatured feel.

The design by Gary McCann, glass, steel and a white background on to which images of Brooklyn, including the landmark bridge, are thrown is very effective.

Reviewer: Pete Wood