THEATRE / Age has not withered him: Broken Glass - Lyttelton; The Wives' Excuse - Swan, Stratford; A Midsummer Night's Dream - Royal Shakespeare, Stratford

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE NEW Arthur Miller play is becoming an annual London event, and familiarity is beginning to take its toll. The Ride Down Mount Morgan and The Last Yankee aroused amazement at the productivity of a man approaching 80. And whatever you thought of those plays, they were ground-breaking works for Miller. Now comes Broken Glass, and a return to his old territory, full of echoes from the past.

Set in Brooklyn in 1938, it tells the story of Philip Gellburg, a Jewish real-estate man, and his wife Sylvia, who succumbs to a mysterious paralysis after reading about the Kristallnacht. Philip is a reluctant Jew ('you tried to disappear into the goyim'), closely related to the hero of Miller's 1945 novel, Focus. He also has humiliating scenes with his employer, recalling those in Death of a Salesman. Meanwhile, with Sylvia's illness, Miller renews the attempt he first made in After the Fall (1964) to attach the sufferings of American personal life to the public atrocities of Nazi Europe. So is the piece a tired rehash in which the moralist finally gobbles up the artist?

The answer on both counts is no. The one quality that distinguishes this play from its predecessors is its ferocious emotional energy. Miller is writing about feelings that have been suppressed through a lifetime's marriage, and when the time comes to voice them, his powers of expression do not let him down. In David Thacker's production, Margot Leicester and Henry Goodman finally reach a plateau, on which they can converse through weeping and animal cries; but they achieve this only thanks to the verbal preparations that Miller has laid down.

As for moralising, it is also the case that the fable is built on a mystery to which no one has the answer. Miller supplies the ailing couple with a physician, but he is the reverse of the standard guru confidant. Dr Hyman chain-smokes, and knows nothing about psychology. He is also a pro-German idealist, and a joker who falls seriously in love with his patient. As Ken Stott plays him, he takes his place as the most bewitchingly eccentric catalyst Miller has created since the old furniture dealer in The Price. He can reveal certain things. He can see through Gellburg's uptight claims to domestic normality and discover that the couple have not made love for 20 years; and that it is Philip, rather than his wife, who is sick. But there his diagnosis comes to a end.

Neither Hyman nor anyone else acts as Miller's spokesman. You are left to discern the meaning through the masterly use of metaphor and stage imagery: through the contrast between the couple, respective victims of physical and spiritual paralysis; through the manifold meanings of the title. Glass has always been a key image for Miller, but it has never been used more resourcefully: the mirror in Gellburg's bathroom, the shattered windows of the Kurfurstendamm, and the glass dividing-walls of Shelagh Keegan's set, insistently suggesting the world elsewhere, which we ignore to the ruin of our own lives.

Built as a home for Britain's dramatic outcasts, the Swan fulfils its role to the letter with Thomas Southerne's The Wives' Excuse, a piece that has been gathering dust since 1691 when it was kicked off the stage as a 'bundle of dialogues' with 'no plot'. Its revival now may have as much to do with its feminist viewpoint as with its theatrical merit. As Southerne's 1988 editors say, this is less an errant Restoration comedy than a forecast of the Victorian problem play. It presents the case of a virtuous wife, Mrs Friendall, who does all she can to defend her worthless husband instead of using his cowardice, and infidelity, as an excuse for having someone else.

That is certainly an interesting reversal of Restoration stereotype; and it guarantees her a realistic and unassailable position as the play's moral centre. It does not make her an interesting or amusing character; and it is no fault of Olivia Williams that she comes over as a primly self-protective ice-maiden, insensible to the surrounding fun. Much of the fun, though, could not exist without her; and one virtue of Max Stafford-Clark's production is that it leaves her to sink or swim among a riotous company to whom right-on feminism is a closed book.

As there are 11 key figures, not counting their gossiping servants, the audience too is thrown in at the deep end, and it was half an hour before I had much idea of what was going on. When the mist clears, you find yourself at an intricately organised sequence of social events, from the opening music-meeting to the concluding masquerade. Almost everything happens in public, and the show develops an operatic power in combining social action with private intrigue. The characters are bursting with disreputable vitality. Some, like Clive Wood's professional virgin-hunter and Anthony Cochrane's would-be seducer, are familiar types. Friendall, musical dilletante and wine-snob, is something new; and wonderfully played by Robert Bowman as a preening petit maitre, stopping the party with a counter-tenor song to which even the servants shut their ears. Another glorious surprise is Lesley Manville's Mrs Wittwoud, a beauty whose forked tongue has ruined her sexual credit. You are supposed to loathe her; but given Manville's sardonic intelligence and her success in bringing this 17th-century prick-teaser bang up to date, you want her to win every time. In her hands feminism packs a real punch. The Purcell songs, written for the original production, are ravishing.

Adrian Noble's excellent main-house production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is developed from the most magical of all theatrical properties: the door. Pulsing halogen bulbs and outsize umbrellas also form the forest on Anthony Ward's stage, but its basic elements are four up-stage doors which convert neutral space into an area of enchantment and surprise. For the lovers' quarrel, they operate farcically. Locked against the fleeing mechanicals they become a source of terror. Arising from floor level, they become surrealistic pedestals for the immortals. But above all they concentrate the action in one space to secure an interpenetration of reality and dream. Theseus's opening ultimatum to the lovers prompts Hippolyta to an enraged exit, thus paving the way for the fairyland quarrel when they reappear as Oberon and Titania; just as Hippoltya finally rewards Bottom with a garland, in fleeting recollection of their woodland nuptials. Besides the doubling of the royal couple, the mechanicals also return as spectacularly balletic fairies.

Meanwhile the contrast of performance styles is sharpened to the limit. The lovers (particularly Emma Fielding's Hermia) discharge raw juvenile energy. Alex Jennings and Stella Gonet present the glamorously Indian-robed royals with voluptuous vocal beauty. The mechanicals are self-respecting artisans who take their acting seriously, and include Daniel Evans's radiantly feminine Flute, and Desmond Barrit's Bottom - a sincere and gifted amateur whose Pyramus is so good it makes the supercilious watchers cry.

'Broken Glass', Lyttelton, 071-928 2252. 'The Wives' Excuse', Swan, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Royal Shakespeare, Stratford, 0789 295623.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments