It’s November 1938 and Sylvia, a paranoid Jewish woman in Brooklyn, is struck by hysterical paralysis. But what’s really constricting her: fear of Germany’s Nazis or fear of her husband at home?
There’s something crude and jagged about Arthur Miller’s late play, Broken Glass, but in the Tricycle Theatre’s new production, it’s given a bright sparkle, thanks to a near flawless ensemble cast. For Miller, as he told his collaborator David Thacker the title Broken Glass signified not only Kristallnacht, which obsesses Sylvia, but also the moment in the Jewish marriage ceremony when the bridegroom shatters a glass goblet under his foot. According to some rabbinical traditions, the moment recollects the destruction of The Temple, and is a reminder of Jewish exile; for others, it’s just a warning not to get too drunk at the party, in case more crockery ends up getting smashed. For others still, it symbolizes the rupture of the hymen, the end of childhood and the irrevocability of the marriage pact; and some say it’s a reminder of the brokenness of the world, that even in the midst of joy there is always sorrow – especially if you’re Jewish. Scattered throughout all these competing meanings is the knowledge that some things, once broken, can never be put back together again.
Or can they? Sylvia’s doctor is determined to solve the mystery at the heart of Sylvia’s breakdown, and Iqbal Khan’s production tries overly hard to focus on the plot as psychoanalytic detective drama. Sylvia’s general doctor, the dashing Dr Hyman – geddit? – admits to only having an amateur’s knowledge of psychoanalysis, which allows Arthur Miller to dabble in a similarly amateurish bout of Freudian psychology. We’re also forced to listen to the doctor pointedly intone that “doctors are very often defective” themselves “that’s why they’re interested in healing” – and then comfort a bashful patient with the claim that “some men take on a lot of women not out of confidence but because they’re afraid to lose it.” Wonder who he could possibly be talking about? But the superb Nigel Lindsay imbues even Miller’s clunkiest lines with nuance, and his gripping embodiment of Dr Hyman’s search for an answer gives vital force to Miller’s conviction that true meaning exists and can be found, that our traditions and lives encapsulate not just a multiplicity of shifting symbols, but core moral meanings. Broken Glass is set in 1938, but was written in 1994, and speaks to questions of moral responsibility raised as much by Rwanda and Sarajevo as by Kristallnacht. When the world seems to shatter, Miller insists that we face up to the reason why.
Lucy Cohu is similarly mesmerizing as Sylvia, convincingly playing above her usual age range as a woman facing the first hints of old age, visibly ill at ease in a broken body that no longer seems to correspond to her soul – or maybe now reflects it only too well. Rarely have comparisons to the young Meryl Streep been more deserved. But the force that makes this production exceptional is the magnetic Anthony Sher, in one of the best performances of the year as her repressed husband Philip Gellburg. Sher is transformed and transformed again onstage as he peels off each layer of Gellburg’s carefully constructed conformity. Consistently contradictory, Gellburg exposes his Jewishness the harder he tries to assimilate: in the same breath as lamenting FDR’s “welfare mishugas”, he excuses Nazi anti-Semitism by muttering that “German Jews can be pretty… you know… not that they’re pushy like the ones from Poland or Russia”. It’s little surprise that no one in his community likes him much, but Sher has the dexterity to make him heartbreakingly sympathetic, unifying every paradox of his character in the crisis of a successful man finally confronted with something he can’t control. Meanwhile, Emily Bruni is pitch-perfect as Sylvia’s hard-bitten sister, Brooklyn to her bones, and Brian Protheroe completes the cast with sterling work as Gellburg’s WASPish employer. The scene changes are distracting, in part thanks to the infuriatingly camp screeches from the hammer-horror cello accompaniment, but despite its flaws punters should leap at this rare chance to see a late Arthur Miller brilliantly staged.
Broken Glass, Tricycle Theatre, until 27th November