Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith Spring 2017
A post-modernist novel that turns in on itself, mixing several levels of reality, is adapted for the stage by 59 Productions, a company who assert 'We combine technology and art to tell amazing stories'. And the result is far less imaginative and far more ordinary than you'd expect.
In Paul Auster's novel a novelist named Daniel Quinn – much will be made of his sharing initials with a famous tilter at windmills – gets a wrong-number phone call and impulsively pretends to be the person asked for, a detective named – wait for it – Paul Auster.
This masquerade gets him involved in a typically murky and complicated film-noir mystery, complete with diseased family, femme fatale, dead ends and red herrings.
Out of his depth, the fake Paul Auster decides to enlist the real detective Paul Auster, but instead finds the novelist Paul Auster, with whom he turns out to have a lot in common (They chat about, among other things, Don Quixote).
Such twinnings and mirrored characters abound in the plot, along with parallel sets of fathers and sons, and a load of heavily-underlined but never really developed symbols including the Tower of Babel, Don Quixote, eggs and the New York Mets.
Eventually Quinn-Auster gets lost in the complexities and multiplying mysteries of the plot, and we are offered the possible explanation that from the start it was all just the product of his madness.
(Or, perhaps, that it all sprang from the imagination of the unnamed narrator who, like Cervantes, is pretending to be just transmitting a manuscript written by someone else. Or perhaps the novel's Paul Auster is the real author. You see what I mean about being self-reflexive? On one level Auster's novel is about the nature and ground rules of novels.)
Adapter Duncan MacMillan attempts to capture the novel's multi-levelled quality by telling most of the story through the disembodied voice of the narrator, sometimes inside Quinn's head, sometimes observing from the outside, and eventually appearing onstage as a character interacting with the others.
But a device that works in a novel – indeed, it is difficult to have a novel without a narrative voice – runs the serious risk of appearing an admission of defeat in a play, a failure to be able to tell the story in theatrical terms.
(Yes, of course there are exceptions to that general observation, but in City Of Glass you are just too aware of being told things rather than being shown them.)
Under director Leo Warner, the combining of technology and art amounts largely to some rather ordinary video projections by Lysander Ashton that are occasionally used to suggest Quinn's growing obsessiveness and madness, but mainly just allow one set to become different places by changing the pictures on the walls.
The novel's doppelganger theme is reflected in having two actors – Mark Edel-Hunt and Chris New – share and occasionally swap the roles of Quinn and Auster, and the double casting also allows for some clever jump-cutting, with what appears to be the same character leaping instantly from one scene to another.
If you enjoy stories built on deliberately unresolved mystification, and if you are easily impressed by some unoriginal video effects, you may be pleased by City Of Glass. Otherwise you may leave the theatre wondering if all that effort had any real point.
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Review - City of Glass - Lyrich Hammersmith Theatre 2017