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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Broken Glass
Tricycle Theatre    Autumn 2010    (Scroll down for re-review of West End transfer)

Arthur Miller's 1994 drama is about the pain of living in a world of uncertainty and the fear of oppression.

His immediate subject is the experience of American Jews in the 1930s, but he explicitly extends what he has to say about them to anyone anywhere, as one character points out that every group has some other group they feel is oppressing them, and everyone feels that their life could be easier if they belonged to some other tribe.

Like many of Miller's plays, this one may strike you as prosaic and heavy-handed as you watch it, but is likely to linger and resonate in your memory and emotions afterward.

A Jewish woman in New York is so traumatised by early reports of Nazi attacks on Jews in Germany that she becomes hysterically paralysed, unable to walk. Her husband, whose pride at his assimilation is a thin veneer to his unhappiness at being Jewish, can't understand her need to identify with something so far away, and the Jewish doctor trying to help is confounded by his own attraction to her.

Eventually the story will prove more personal than political, with strains and secrets within the marriage contributing to the pain of both husband and wife.

Soap opera was never Miller's strong suit - the weakest element in Death Of A Salesman is the revelation that Biff gave up on life after discovering his father with another woman - and this play does threaten to get bogged down in soppy psychosexual clichés. But it recovers, and convincingly makes the point that the personal and political are inextricably connected, and can contribute to a sense of being isolated and 'other', and inadequate to cope.

Curiously, the centre of the play is not really the paralysed woman, conceived by Miller and played by Lucy Cohu with a stolidity that suggests that willing herself into physical powerlessness is actually a relief from her larger but more nebulous pains.

It is the husband who goes on a journey of revealing and learning more about himself than he had ever allowed himself to realise, and if - small spoiler alert here - sexual impotence is a bit too obvious a symbol, the exposure of the fear beneath his bluff is the most moving and engaging part of the play.

Certainly Antony Sher has an actor's dream role, with the opportunity to go from buttoned-up coldness through bewilderment, fear, rage, despair and self-discovery, and this sometimes very broad actor is most impressive in the small and subtle touches by which he shows the man cracking and collapsing.

Nigel Lindsay is sympathetic as the doctor almost out of his depth both medically and emotionally but still determined to do good, and there is strong support from Madeleine Potter as his gossipy but insightful wife, Emily Bruni as a supportive family member, and Brian Protheroe as the husband's gentile boss, no more anti-Semitic than a man of his class and time would be, which is to say very.

Iqbal Khan's direction may get stuck in the soap opera from time to time, at the expense of the play's larger human-condition observations, but he manages to pull out of each trap the playwright has set, and draws strong performances from the whole cast.

Gerald Berkowitz

Broken Glass
Vaudeville Theatre   Autumn 2011

One of Arthur Miller's last plays, Broken Glass is not in the top rank of his work. It wears its heart on its sleeve and is a bit clunky in manipulating its characters and spelling out its themes.

But like his best work it has something honest to say about a piece of reality, and it says it, making it more successful than a lot of A-list work by lesser playwrights. 

A programme note tells us that the inspiration for the play came from two different people Miller once heard about, a woman who became psychosomatically paralysed and a man so repressed that he seemed to be trying to get through life without being noticed. 

Miller marries their stories, and the characters, and makes the core of their experience their Jewishness in 1938 New York.

The trigger, if not entire cause, of her paralysis is the horror generated by reports of early Nazi abuse of Jews in Germany, while his buttoned-up quality is part of his attempt to assimilate, proud of being the only Jew employed by the big bank where he works while at the same time insisting that he's Finnish ('Gellburg, not Goldberg') and pained at being lumped together with what his gentile boss calls 'you people'. 

There's more, because one of Miller's lifelong beliefs was that the personal and the political are inextricable, and problems within the marriage both grow out of and contribute significantly to both their unhappinesses. 

Although the plot backbone is the attempt by a sympathetic doctor to free the wife of her paralysis, the emotional core of the play lies with the husband, and how this crisis brings out all the conflicted feeling he has spent a lifetime repressing – about his Jewishness, about his marriage, about his manhood. 

This production directed by Iqbal Khan was first seen at the off-West End Tricycle Theatre last year and only now transfers to the West End with a wholly new cast except for Brian Protheroe in the small role of the gentile boss and Antony Sher as the husband. 

Certainly this is Sher's evening, as he gets to play repressed, confident, confused, angry, broken and hysterical in turn. And along with the work of sustaining a Brooklyn accent, there's a whole lot of capital-A Acting going on up there, so much so that you might at times be more aware of the actor-as-technician than of the character. 

But, just as Miller's vision overcomes his occasional clunkiness, the honesty of Sher's portrayal of a man who has spent his life repressing emotions that now overwhelm him carries the evening. 

Tara Fitzgerald gives a less bravura performance (except for the accent) as the paralysed woman, making us understand and believe that she could actually be happier having made this unconscious choice than she was when there seemed nothing in life she could control. 

And Stanley Townsend as the doctor whose concern is confused by his attraction to his patient goes far toward creating a real character out of what is little more than a plot device.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Broken Glass - Vaudeville Theatre 2011

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