The Glasshouse, Max Saunders-Singer’s play about the dehumanising effect of war, gets a visceral, bone-crunching staging at 53two.
During World War I, George Moon (Sam Adamson) is imprisoned in a makeshift prison, The Glasshouse of the title, awaiting trial for desertion. Moon has been traumatised by his experiences and has epilepsy, is terrified of loud noises, tongue-tied by a debilitating stutter and brutalised by his guards to the extent that he seems more animal than man.
The guards too have been desensitised by the conflict and show little concern for their prisoner. However, a second prisoner, conscientious objector Pip (Max Saunders-Singer who wrote the play), takes a more humane approach to George and his attitude prompts the guard Harper (Simon Naylor) to revise his attitude to the prisoners and to blindly following orders.
The production features a stunning performance from Sam Adamson as the abused prisoner Moon. Cowering and filching, Adamson is the perfect depiction of someone suffering the effects of war. You really can’t take your eyes off him, which becomes an issue as he shifts the focus of the play towards George Moon who is not the central character but rather a catalyst for prompting change in Harper. Simon Naylor’s subtle depiction of someone struggling to rediscover his sense of decency and realising that he has more in common with his prisoners than his fellow guards is rather over-shadowed.
It makes for an uneven production; the first act is much longer than the second and so forms the basis by which the audience initially identifies the theme of the play. It gives the impression of an emotionally charged criticism of a system that dehumanises all involved in the conflict, while the second act is more an intellectual debate around pacifism and when it is morally right to defy those in authority.
Towards the end of act one, Moon becomes very loquacious, presumably to round out the character, and while the speech is beautifully delivered and heart-breaking it again raises the profile of someone whose role is secondary and blurs the theme of the play. The pacifist theme does not really emerge until well into the second act.
Director Sonnie Beckett sets a bleak and a powerful atmosphere. The opening scene—Sam Adamson crucified and trying to drink rainwater dripping from a hole in the roof—is unforgettable. It sets the grim background of a place where brutality is dominant and conforming to standards of common decency takes superhuman courage. It is an environment in which Corin Silva’s bullying borderline psychotic guard, Blythe, can cause immense damage just to satisfy his own selfish need for petty power.
Although the uneven structure is a distraction, The Glasshouse remains a strong play with stunning acting and vivid, powerful direction.