Paul Auster’s City of Glass, adapted by Duncan Macmillan, directed by Leo Warner for 59 Productions; HOME, March 18, 2017.
From the moment the battery of lights surrounding the outer edges of the proscenium blindingly flare on and off (as they will many times throughout this production, perhaps representing sudden moments of recollection and forgetting) and the noir-ish, electric guitar with supporting atmospheric electronic intimations is taken down a notch, and the apparent protagonist Quinn appears, you simply know that the cast and crew have got this adaptation locked down. From then on it simply lets rip for just over 90 minutes, no interval, in a flawless synthesis of truly excellent performances, ingenious stage design and technical virtuosity. Whether it’s from the perspective of audience member or reviewer it really is a total pleasure when this happens.
There simply isn’t a single bad thing to say about Duncan Macmillan and 59 Production’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, the first in the latter’s reputation-establishing New York Trilogy. Perhaps only that it ends its run in Manchester so soon. The acting is flawless, the staging seamless, the set stylish, the mood atmospheric and the overall experience highly engaging and immersive.
Literary critics or Auster aficionados might take issue with what is and isn’t taken from the novel, but this really would be picking holes for the sake of picking holes. What is and isn’t there is part of, even the point of, Auster’s plot anyway: physical things, remembered things, forgotten things, lunatic and illogical things, it’s hard to tell what is real, what is imaginary, and what never even existed. This production completely gets it. When Quinn/Auster returns to the apartment of Peter Stillman Jr. towards end of the play to find it abandoned and dilapidated, serious questions have to be asked as to whether Stillman and his wife Virginia, the oil paintings lining the wood panelled walls, and her tall silver ash tray were ever there in the first place. The contrast is delivered so strikingly.
As Quinn/Auster first deteriorates in an alley outside then lets himself in later, you realize how well the play conveys the unnerving and disorientating elements of Auster’s text and the sense of erasure and breakdown of identity, despite the best efforts of many of the characters. Quinn does this through his career as a detective novelist and then his obsession with the Stillmans. Peter Stillman Sr. does it through theology and trying to redefine the language of objects, and therefore reality. And Peter Stillman Jr. does it by attempting to get a grip on reality after being locked away by his father in a cruel experiment for nine years, now referring to himself a poet and streaming a series of arbitrary statements and nonsense: I am Peter Stillman. I say this of my own free will. Yes. That is not my real name. No. Of course, my mind is not all it should be. But nothing can be done about that. No. About that. No, no. Not anymore.
In the penultimate scene, before the real real Paul Auster arrives (discounting the writer, Paul Auster, who Quinn/Auster meets mistakenly believing him to be the actual private detective named Auster – yes, this is complex, especially if you don’t know the novel, but the production discloses the plot with lucidity) to investigate the disappearance and descent into madness of Quinn/Auster, a plate of food and a glass of wine mysteriously appear next to Quinn/Auster who is naked (‘Oh my god!’ blurts out a young girl to her friend in the row behind me as Mark Edel-Hunt and Chris New appear in their birthday suits) and shorn of the long hair and beard he has acquired through living rough amongst other peoples’ junk and refuse staking out the Stillman building. Restlessly, sometimes sleeping, sometimes sprawling, morning and evening blurring into one, he notes down the workings of his mind in a red notebook. This is left at the front of the stage. In a final act Quinn approaches the front of the stage and holds his hands up, touching them to an invisible barrier or film of light that glows when his hands come into contact with it. He is absorbed into more light as the battery now streams glaringly outwards. Big questions are asked about free will in Auster’s narrative, how freely or not you act, how freely or not you come to some understanding about who you are and what you have.
These sudden changes in Quinn/Auster’s physical appearance are achieved by some brilliant and wonderful intersections and switches between the cast. World records must have beenset here in costume changes and make-up jobs. Edel-Hunt and New emerge and re-emerge from all points on the stage in a kind of absurd comic play or farce, contained within the main production; fitting, given Auster’s propensity for stories within stories.
Jack Tarlton does a remarkable job as both Stillman men. He appears first as Peter Jr., waddling tentatively through a pair of grand double doors into the apartment’s plush reception area, white as a sheet from hair to toe, understandably looking like a man who has suffered from a severe shock and is just about dealing with it. Edel-Hunt and New as mentioned share duties as Quinn/Auster and both have minor roles as characters such as a fast food vendor and a hotel custodian. As well as her principal part as Virginia, the excellent Vivienne Acheampong also has a small role as the new tenant of Quinn/Auster’s apartment whom he terrifies when he returns home after his period of living rough (he still has the key to the place, and in Auster’s world locks don’t get replaced, doors just open onto other doors).
The passages drawn from Auster’s novel are treated with utmost respect and used to compelling effect in the voiceover that runs throughout the play. Macmillan uses clever selections from the third person narration in the novel for this, the characters in the play interject and speak Auster’s dialogue and much of the rest of the novel is transferred visually.
Everything here has a purity, an artistic commitment and integrity, not only the whole casts’ performances and direction of Leo Warner, but also the style and execution; everybody in the team at 59 Productions behind-the-scenes deserves huge acclaim. At times sections of the stage open up to allow glimpses of the past, such as one amazing scene where an animation of the construction and destruction of the Tower of Babel is projected across the stage, and a much younger Peter Stillman Sr. emerges dressed like a Puritan preacher to give a lecture/sermon on the ideas behind the book he has written, detailing the true or real language of god. This technique also allows other locations to appear, a burger joint, Peter Stillman Sr.’s seedy looking hotel.
In another scene where Quinn is on the tail of the fresh out of the slammer Stillman Sr. (one of two he might follow who both get off the same train, the other is less decrepit looking and actually could be a former professor) across New York, a map appears and brightly illuminated lines are traced like lit fuses, thin lines of fire moving in the shape of the letters spelling out ‘The Tower of Babel’ that Stillman is making with the path he takes through the city from his cheap, dingy hotel each day. The effects are so good, so staggering, that at times you question whether you are still watching a play and not a big-screen film adaptation.
Much of the play is filmic and incorporates noir-ish tropes: the voiceover, the music; the voices down crackling, questionable telephone lines. Again, this fits in with and visually embellishes Auster’s ideas. Heavy rain starts to fall across the city at one point as Quinn comically puts up the blown out umbrella given to him by Peter Stillman Sr. in an earlier meeting between the two in a park, after Quinn decides to get closer to him, ultimately convincing him he is his real son. Thwarted, he pulls his grey mackintosh over his head and trudges off. The umbrella is one of the objects Stillman is collecting on his walks to prove his linguistic/theological thesis.
The play is full of clever touches and trickery. In Quinn’s apartment there is a framed poster for one of his William Wilson detective novels. Wilson, looking like a detective in a trilby hat, his form swathed in darkness and shadow and cigarette smoke, inhabits and occasionally comes to life in the poster. Silhouetted figures appear behind the backdrop to represent Quinn’s lost family. In the scenes where Quinn, in full Detective Paul Auster mode and aping the character he invents in his novels, pursues the elder Stillman from Grand Central Station the stage is flecked with departure and arrival boards and Acheampong becomes an attitude-laden passenger waiting in the main hall, as she reads and talks to Quinn with little enthusiasm about the mediocrity of one of his detective novels. On the subway Tarlton and New sway side to side and jolt forward when the train stops. Similar projections appear throughout on screens that descend and ascend sporadically and on the bare wall backdrop to fill out the different spaces the characters inhabit.
The humour is well channeled too. We see Quinn on the lavatory ‘dispatching a turd’, rushing to get his pants up and fretting over whether to wipe or not wipe when his phone rings. The scene between Quinn/Auster and Stillman Sr. where the latter uses a metaphor of humpty-dumpty to God and reality is played to wring out its full ludicrousness and bizarreness.
This adaptation tests tests the limits of traditional stagecraft and technological innovation to perfectly suits Auster’s own literary playfulness and experiment. It’s a stunning achievement, shot through with urgency and frenzy, and it oozes class. You will be hard pressed to see better theatre this year in Manchester or anywhere across the country, and it’s no surprise that 59 Productions have been lauded for their past efforts. This is simply another installment in their growing list of successes and long may these continue.