After Eddie Carbone, Willy Loman and Joe Keller, Arthur Miller gives us another classic flawed hero in this 1994 Laurence Olivier Award-winning play Broken Glass. Antony Sher takes on Phillip Gellburg at the Tricycle theatre.
What a curious character he is. A Jewish New Yorker who has reached middle management in real estate, Sher’s Gellburg is a complex bundle of hang-ups, carefully kept at bay by his fastidiously slicked down hair and black suit. He might be neatly turned out, but underneath he is an emotional mess, with insecurities a-plenty, a hilarious lack of humour and a great big chip on his shoulder about being Jewish.
These emotions are slowly brought to the surface after his wife Sylvia (Lucy Cohu) becomes paralysed from the waist down, caused by what her doctor thinks is a psychological condition. An intelligent, deep-thinking woman whose working life was curbed due to her marriage to Phillip some 20 years ago, Sylvia has become deeply distraught by images of Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany. This is 1938, and though the atrocities are far away over the Atlantic, Sylvia sees the people’s faces as though they are in front of her.
Through a series of scenes with her doctor, Nigel Lindsay’s Dr Hyman, we come to understand that Sylvia’s paralysis is as complex as the workings of Phillip’s mind. The pain she feels about the events in Germany is bound up with deep-set emotions about the marital difficulties that have existed between her and Phillip almost since the beginning of their marriage. As these long-buried emotions are brought to the fore, it becomes more than Phillip can bear.
It would take a whole essay to untangle the contradictions of Phillip’s mind. Sher portrays a man who is half-proud of his Jewish identity yet strangely obsessed by it, a man who is devoted to his wife but who feels emasculated by her, a man who is bullish and controlling, yet also lacking in self-esteem and deeply vulnerable.
Cohu’s calm, sensible, pained Sylvia may have fewer flaws, but she has nevertheless let herself become tied to those of her husband. Lindsay’s Dr Hyman brings colour and life to the play as the womanising doctor who has marital difficulties of his own, while Emily Bruni and Madeleine Potter provide strong support as Sylvia’s straight-talking sister and Dr Hyman’s brassy, voluptuous wife.
Iqbal Khan’s production has a lone cellist sitting at the back of the stage behind a gauze screen, as though suspended in the air. The cello’s melancholy, dissonant notes help set the mood during each scene change. A single bed and a couple of chairs are the only other props on Mike Britton’s set, which has walls of ragged, flaking paper, as though a woman has manically scratched her fingernails down it.
Phillip may not be quite as poignant and heartbreaking a character as Joe Keller in All My Sons, or Death Of A Salesman’s Willy Loman, but with Broken Glass Miller showed that he never lost that capacity to get under the skin and delve into the human soul, warts and all.