Broken Glass: Vaudeville Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

There are those for whom it is axiomatic that late Arthur Miller equals substandard Arthur Miller.

Is Broken Glass (1994) the great exception to this rule? I certainly thought so when the piece received its British premiere at the National Theatre. Watching Iqbal Khan's revival – first seen at the Tricycle a year ago – I found myself assailed by the odd doubt. There's a heavy-handedness about this production that tends to expose the bald over-explicitness of Miller's writing.

Set in Brooklyn in 1938, Broken Glass focuses on the blighted union of Phillip Gellburg, a Jewish property valuer, and his wife, Sylvia, who has mysteriously lost the use of her legs. Has she been traumatised by newspaper reports of Hitler's persecution of Jews in Germany? Or is it Sylvia's way of withdrawing from a sterile marriage to a husband long incapable of physical love? The investigation is conducted by a sexy doctor and ex-stud whose hands-on approach establishes that the link is Phillip, whose self-hating ambivalence about his own Jewishness and desperate desire to assimilate has led Sylvia, on an unconscious level, to equate her spouse with the Nazis.

Antony Sher is the dumpy, black-suited embodiment of repression as Phillip, grotesquely fawning to his WASP boss and looking as if he might burst with embarrassment as his various kinds of impotence are brought to light. The performance is certainly a tour de force but I watched it with a detached awe, whereas my guts churned in unison with Henry Goodman's superb Philip in the NT premiere. Tara Fitzgerald strikes me as too glamorous and drily self-possessed to have accepted the marriage for so long on these humiliating terms or to capture Sylvia's stricken confusion. As a result, for all the brooding plangency of the onstage cello solos, there's a level of pathos unplumbed here.

Striding around in knee-length boots, Stanley Townsend's doctor and amateur shrink exudes a warmly sensuous, strapping virility that makes him, to an almost ludicrous degree, the polar opposite of the buttoned-up Philip. A horse-riding Jew? Blame his wrangler forbears in Odessa. That exaggerated antithesis is characteristic, though, of an honourable and humane play that often feels strained and schematic.

To 10 December (0844 412 4663)



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