A social realist play in the Ibsen tradition, written as a critical response to events overtaking Europe in 1994 when it was confronting the biggest atrocity on its territory since the Holocaust in Bosnia, and the world seemed to be doing nothing. Fear, persecution, identity: according to Arthur Miller's late play, Broken Glass, to live is to be afraid, all are persecuted, but no one admits to being a persecutor.
And the haunting of history: in 1938 America was slow to respond to the Kristallnacht pogrom happening over there, three thousand miles away in Germany. But Brooklyn housewife, Sylvia Gellburg, reacts with hysterical paralysis in her legs.
Literal and figurative paralysis, personal and global, in the face of unspeakable horror, how is that possible? Miller answers, sparing no punches, with Broken Glass, a peeling back of the layers to get to that cold self-interested splinter in the heart of society, at the heart of a troubled couple's relationship, in the heart of uptight Phillip Gellburg, who doesn't like Jews - maybe he's a Nazi hmm.
He has lost his soul in his struggle for acceptance in America, the land of the free, proud to be the only Jew ever in this WASP firm of mortgage brokers, his son Jerome the only Jew at West Point. Gellburg, not Goldberg, he insists, from Finland
He is so repressed he is fit to burst, and burst he does. Parallels are obvious. He tries but can't help his wife. His very nature is the cause of her illness. Impotence writ large, Miller makes it personal. It is always personal.
Sylvia is scared: "What is the matter with those people! Don't you understand . . . ? . . . This is an emergency! What if they kill those children! Where is Roosevelt! Where is England! Somebody should do something before they murder us all!"
Who can help? Why, jovial Dr Harry Hyman, of course... with a nice wife from Minnesota who helps out in his surgery. A stud in his younger days, he is the very antithesis of Gellburg. A virile horseman in knee-high boots - do Jews ride? Gellburg asks - they do if they come from a family of horse wranglers from Odessa...
But he studied in Heidelberg. This nonsense in Germany will pass. Germany is a civilized and cultured country after all. With little knowledge of psychiatry, awakening Sylvia to love is the cod Freudian prescription for her malaise.
In the end Phillip's stressed heart can't take anymore. He loves his wife more than his life, but... Sylvia's psychosomatic collapse ultimately precipitates his, which gets her back on her feet
It is difficult to avoid clichés when each character is a fragment in a political argument, in a wake-up call. Never more than two or three on stage, confronting each other face to face, chairs pulled up, Broken Glass is essentially a dramatic lecture made dynamic.
Mike Britton's design cleverly encapsulates the interiority of minds boxed-in within peeling asylum institution walls, under bare light bulbs (lighting by Matthew Eagland). The subconscious mind is gradually exposed as set-dividing gauze membranes descend and rise. A place of mental breakdown, a Spartan room with bed and two chairs, but who is the invalid?
A cellist (Laura Moody) plays, as Fania Fenelon once played when people were hastened to their deaths in Auschwitz. Ed Borgnis' sound design and Grant Olding's composition, austere, dissonant, evocative, break up the scenes and give us pause, space to reflect. Above all, we must be made to reflect, to remember, to empathize.
Constipated, clenched, tense in ill-fitting tight black suit, shiny shoes and hair, Anthony Sher acts fit to burst, with huge empathy for Phillip Gellburg, but he does not go for sympathy, as Henry Goodman did in his unforgettable performance in the 1994 award-winning National Theatre production, and subsequently in David Thacker's 1996 film.
Sher's Phillip is more of a closed book, its painful truth made manifest in understated sighs and gestures. He has lived with the role for a year now since its first production at the Tricycle. Tara Fitzgerald, fresh to her role, is too young, too glamorous in her silk slips and negligee, too spirited to be worn down by twenty uncomfortable years of going through the motions of living.
Stanley Townsend plays Dr. Hyman large, a self-confident presence, and Caroline Loncq is brilliant as his wife with the horsey laugh. Suzan Sylvester makes the most of Sylvia's sister Harriet, and she does the best Brooklyn accent of them all. Brian Protheroe is a walk-on as Gellburg's yacht-owning boss Stanton Case, hardly a character at all.
Fine acting, memorable lines, and some humour too, but it is the two and a half hour (with interval break) polemic that demands attention. Iqbal Khan's excellent production is sensitive and considered. We all need to love and to be loved. 'No man is an island entire of itself'.
Interestingly, Broken Glass had a lukewarm reception when it opened in New York in 1994, yet was a big success in London, winning best new play. It has held up well, and resonates still, because the past is still with us.
"Broken Glass" runs until 10th December 2011
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Reviewer: Vera Liber