Adapted for stage by Duncan Macmillan (1984, People, Places and Things), Paul Auster’s 1985 novel, City of Glass takes to the stage at Lyric Hammersmith. The book is the first part of The New York Trilogy, a series of meta-detective fiction stories.
Directed by Leo Warner of 59 Productions, the adaptation is inspired by a graphic novel based on The City of Glass, by David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik. It is the first play from the company, whose previous projects have included the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, and the exhibition David Bowie Is at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It is the middle of the night, and crime writer Daniel Quinn receives a mysterious phone call from a man named Peter Stillman. He is seeking a private detective called Paul Auster pending the release of his sociopathic father from a mental institution. Stillman’s safety is paramount, and his wife Virginia is terrified. Quinn adopts the character of Auster, and his reality implodes as he becomes devoured by his new-fangled objective. He must find Stillman’s father, follow him, and kill him – before it is too late.
The stage is shaped like a warped television screen, and is raised on a platform, well above eyeline. Designed by Jenny Melville, the set is built within this abstract rectangle. Tangible items such as a bookcase, a sofa, a writing desk, and a chair sit nestled within the space. Multiple sets of doors and windows create an illusion of depth, and organise the narrative through their ability to connect and separate the action and its characters.
Further layers are added using projection, designed by Lysander Ashton. The walls, ceiling, and floor melt and surge with astonishing images, transporting the actors and audience through Auster’s story. Underpinned by a Hitchcockian score, a suspenseful atmosphere reinforces the visual grammar created by the company. This is a work of genius: “a world in which nothing is real, except chance.”
In a reference to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a narrator appears as a voice-over, and dictates the story of City of Glass to its protagonist, Quinn. The cast of five multi-role throughout: Quinn is played by two actors (Mark Edel-Hunt and Chris New), as is the character of Paul Auster’s son, Daniel (Charlie Cunningham and Oscar Williams).
The characters of Virginia and Peter Stillman (Vivienne Acheampong and Jack Tarlton) are perhaps the least grounded, with both actors spread across too many roles. As a result, it is difficult to form an emotional attachment with either character, which bred a disassociation with the entire piece. It also seems impossible for the actors to meet the magnificence of the stagecraft, which in turn, widens the disconnect between the action and audience.
Because of this consistent sense of detachment, the event felt more like observing an exhibit at a museum, than watching a theatrical performance. That being said, the company have turned the Main Space of the Lyric into an architectural palimpsest. The highly innovative technological display made for a spectacle beyond belief, and the ingenious use of illusion and magic had been incorporated into the narrative effortlessly.
Perhaps, with its next theatrical innovation, 59 Productions will be able to strike a finer balance between its methods of artistic communication. If they can, the results will be astronomical.
City of Glass is playing at Lyric Hammersmith until May 20.