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The Vintage Guide To London | February 20, 2018

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Theatre review: Arthur Miller's Thirties drama Broken Glass

Arthur Miller’s Olivier award winning play Broken Glass is a thought provoking drama set in Brooklyn during 1938. The deeply psychological tale of guilt, loss and genocide is now showing in a production in London. Rebecca McWattie reviews.

Sir Anthony Sher is magnificent as Phillip Gellburg, a Jewish business man seeking the help of Dr Harry Hyman after his wife Sylvia suddenly and inexplicably becomes paralysed. For the past nine days Sylvia, in an outstanding performance by Tara Fitzgerald, has lost the feeling in her legs. Day after day she sits in her wheelchair reading newspaper reports of Jews being arrested in Germany and of the first major pogrom against Jews, Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, known also as ‘The Night of Broken Glass’.

These happenings weigh heavily on her mind, increasingly frustrated that no-one understands her concern. Phillip boasts about being ‘the only Jew who ever worked for the Brooklyn Guarantee and Trust in their whole history’ but the pride he feels at being the Head of the Mortgage Department suggests how uncomfortable he is at being in the minority, and therefore has no real empathy with his wife’s obsession with affairs 3,000 miles away in Germany.

Dr Hyman, played by Stanley Townsend, finds no physiological cause of the paralysis and begins questioning Sylvia about her marriage and her ‘relations’ with Phillip. There is clearly sexual tension between Dr Hyman and Sylvia, especially during scenes where he lifts her into bed. One can’t help but wonder if his enquiries into Sylvia’s sex life are personal curiosity in part. Dr Hyman wonders if her paralysis is also a symptom of her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her.

This is a play which explores the word ‘impotence’ in all forms; Sylvia’s helplessness of the Jewish crisis in Germany causing her to become paralysed, Phillip’s fears of being inadequate as a man resulting in his inability to satisfy his wife sexually and his growing frustration at not being able to cure his wife, a frustration we see throughout the play building into a crescendo of rage – a rage partly signifying his anger of being born and branded a ‘Jew’ – but most poignantly, Miller is asking us to see Phillip and Sylvia as a couple symbolising the impotence of American Jews in 1938, as they looked on and did nothing, maybe could do nothing.

Arthur Miller was 23 in 1938 and had just graduated with a BA honours in English. Despite being born in New York to Polish-Jewish immigrants he later said he had been an atheist since his teens. The years to follow had a profound effect on the young Miller as the full horrors of World War II unravelled. Suddenly Miller viewed human behaviour differently, something which clearly influenced his future works.

Directed by Iqbal Khan, the set design by Mike Britton is uninspiring – ‘Miller’s language is so rich, it doesn’t feel like you need to represent the world physically. It can be simply two people and two chairs in a room’. The solo cello pieces between scenes, played by the talented Laura Moody, instead of achieving the haunting effect Miller was looking for, grow irritating.

The success of this Broken Glass production relies solely upon the high calibre of the acting. It may not be the most famous Miller play but it is certainly worthy of more attention.

Broken Glass at the Vaudeville Theatre, booking until 10 December 2011
Booking until 10 December 2011.
Tickets from £22.50