Review: Broken Glass

By John Nathan, September 23, 2011
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Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2

Close to greatness: Tara Fitzgerald and Antony Sher

Close to greatness: Tara Fitzgerald and Antony Sher

There is a conversation in the final act of Arthur Miller's late play that I'm willing to bet most Jews have had a version of at some point in their lives, whether with another Jew or possibly just with themselves. It takes place in the final act between the repressed and self-hating Phillip Gellburg - unforgettably played here by Antony Sher - and the much better adjusted Jew, Doctor Hyman, played by a Stanley Townsend who is so laid back he is practically lying down.

It is here that Gellburg admits to all the anxieties he has hitherto suppressed, including how he yearns to sit with Jews in synagogue but at the same times finds Jews infuriate him in ways no gentile ever could. He also asks why Jews have to be different from everyone else. Hyman's measured replies, so brimful of humanity and wisdom, represent one of the very few times that Miller wrote himself into a play.

Set in Brooklyn in 1938, Broken Glass centres on the marriage between Gellburg and his wife Sylvia (Tara Fitzgerald), who, since she started reading about Kristallnacht and the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, has lost the use of her legs. Hyman, her doctor, suspects the problem is psychological and that her emotionally, physically and - with Sher's version - vocally repressed husband is the cause of the problem.

As the "miserable little pisser" Gellburg, Sher delivers one of the most remarkable performances of his career. In a tight black suit he is the embodiment of a blood vessel that is about to burst. What felt a tad grandstanding at the Tricycle Theatre last year has now grown not in size but nuance, revealing not just Gellburg's anger but ultimately a touching and humanising sense of his own ridiculousness. Fitzgerald, who with Townsend is a newcomer to the production, is also terrific, transmitting the frosty poise of a sexually neglected woman.

When Miller decided to write about the persecution of Europe's Jews, but set his play in a different continent, he created a problem for himself. And with most productions of Broken Glass you can feel the grinding of gears as Miller works hard to link events in Brooklyn and Berlin. But the masterstroke of Iqbal Khan's production is to locate the play in Mike Britton's expressionistic design - a series of receding walls covered in peeling and blistered paint. And between scenes, the sonorous strains and guttural pizzicato played by cellist Laura Moody serve as the sound of the Gellburgs' angst. So, suspended in this psychological limbo, the geography of the events becomes almost irrelevant.

When it opened in Kilburn last year, Khan's production made a strong case that Broken Glass, first seen in 1994, was Miller's best late play. With Sher, it gets close to greatness.

Tel: 0844 412 4663

    Last updated: 10:27am, September 23 2011