Saturday 18 March 2017

City of Glass – HOME, Manchester

[seen 09/03/17]

It’s maybe interesting to reflect sometimes on the sort of review you’d have written about a particular piece of theatre at various earlier stages in one’s life.

First, I’ll be up-front and honest and admit that I didn’t *love* City of Glass. If I had, I’d doubtless be writing exactly the sort of rave I just wrote about Hamlet a week ago, or about Attempts on Her Life a decade ago.

Probably a long time ago, before I knew any of the people involved in making City of Glass, and when I seemed to take every piece of theatre I didn’t like personally, I can imagine an earnest, arch, scathing, attack-review which would have probably held Duncan Macmillan and 59 Productions wholly responsible for destroying all of contemporary British theatre with technology. (Sorry, Complité!) In my defence, back then it wasn’t unreasonable for me to recognise that, in terms of power dynamics, I was nothing, nowhere. Any punching I did would necessarily be upwards.

I can imagine another sort of review a few years later, probably when I was living in Berlin, where I’d have conducted an pretty unfair, largely unsubstantiated, complete character assassination of [in this case, Paul Auster], based largely on my incomplete attempt to once read New York Stories in 1999, and on the story of City of Glass (the first story in that book) as it is presented in this production. It’s true that neither my 1999 self, nor my 2010 self, nor my now-self, especially get on with City of Glass. None of us get on with If On A Winter’s Night, A Traveller by Italo Calvino either, nor with Umberto Eco particularly. And that’s the sort of tricksy (and, we’d say empty) literary postmodernism we’re looking at in the source material. Obviously it’s hugely highly regarded by many people, but taste is a difficult thing, and there we are. At this point, I don’t think I had a great deal more “power” as a reviewer, and punches could be traded on a more-or-less equal basis; which might go some way to explaining the level of savagery, if not fully excusing it.

Another sort of review, a couple of years after that – forged in the surprisingly febrile, post-Three Kingdoms blogosphere world populated by Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’s Dialogue Project, and the genesis of “embedded criticism” – might now be termed “proto-snowflake reviewing”; criticism wrestling with the problem of how to talk about work which, for one reason or another, hadn’t fully worked for the critic. (Sorry, Sam Pritchard! Still, that all worked out in the end, right?) I suppose by that stage, the balance of power was felt to have shifted. That bloggers clearly had some degree of influence, and one had to try to behave with something that faintly resembled responsibility. Or, more than that, there was a desire to be better in our ethics than the mainstream critics. We couldn’t very well accuse them of being cheap and irresponsible if we also were. So there was now also deemed to be a down where we didn’t go punching. Even if there was also still an up... Perhaps the approaches of 2012 still hold sway a bit here. Here I am, five years later, still trying to be mature and responsible which not especially having liked a thing (I mean, it’s fine; I didn’t hate City of Glass or anything...)

Another approach from around that time was the ever so slightly snarky reviewed-in-the-style-of review. Cf. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (still possibly the best thing I've ever written by a country mile). In the story, a man receives a phone call for Paul Auster, a private detective. Later the man meets Paul Auster, the writer. Paul Auster, the (necessarily) fictional writer who shares the name of the story’s author, tells the man about a paper he’s written about how Don Quixote is written by Don Quixote’s friends to prove to him that he’s mad. Or not mad. Or something. (Ok, I wasn’t concentrating hard enough.) I considered writing this review as a story in which I was erroneously contacted as Duncan Macmillan, the critic, and ended up writing this review he'd been commissioned to write of City of Glass to see what would happen. Instead, I’ve indulged in an altogether different sort of bibliographical exercise in monstrous self-regard, which possibly also echoes my feelings on Auster’s novella.

Later still – perhaps circa 2014 – I’d maybe have prefaced my review of Duncan’s adaptation by demonstrating exhaustively that I was the only critic in the UK actually equipped to put this piece into the context of Macmillan’s extensive body of adaptations. Sure, everyone saw 1984, but literally no other bugger saw Reise Durch Die Nacht or Wunschloses unglück did they? (and probably people forget that he “wrote” Forbidden Zone and 2071...). I would have argued that without seeing at least Reise... or ...unglück it was impossible to really appreciate how this adaptation could have worked... But, I’ve hopefully matured beyond that sort of point-scoring now.

In the end, we need to get down to facts (or at least, things I definitely thought): I thought it was a valuable experiment for the company.

I think there are still fundamental problems in theatre for the meshing of live actors with fixed, digitally-created video projections. I think this project highlighted those problems more than it solved them. That said, I think it was infinitely more sophisticated and successful in its use of video than A Disappearing Number 10 years ago. I have no doctrinal objections to people trying to get video and liveness integrated. On the other hand, how would I have solved the problems of this production? By getting the actors to work with just the script  and a director for four weeks, and by having the thing performed on an stage that was empty except for a big white square wall in the middle of the blackness, behind which they could disappear when needed.

But I still don’t think the story would have especially appealed to me. Not completely sure why, and groping for rationales tends to make one come out with silly, rather absolutist-sounding statements (probably – in this case – about America, white, male privilege, and all the sordid rest of it). By the end of the review, I’d have probably ended up blaming Auster for Trump. Which would be silly.

In the end, I’d much rather have been Brian Gorman, writing for ReviewsHub, who seems to have absolutely loved City of Glass and writes about with real enthusiasm and verve.  

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