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City of Glass review at Home, Manchester – ‘extraordinary visuals’

Chris New in City of Glass at Home. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

When The Jazz Singer announced the arrival of the talkies in 1927, a corner was turned. From the moment, the medium changed forever. While this adaption of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by 59 Productions isn’t quite that pivotal, it feels like it’s paving the way towards a similar shift.

The production draws inspiration from the graphic novelisation of Auster’s stories by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. The stage is split into two cells and animated backdrops are projected onto the set, transforming it, in the blink of an eye, from a grubby New York apartment to a diner, to a railway station, to an insalubrious alley way, to Central Park. Skyscrapers erupt from the floor, books colonise shelves, shadows congregate, and words bleed from the walls. It’s dazzling.

Auster’s metaphysical novella is, in essence, an essay on language, authorship and writing, sewn in to the skin of a detective story. It is a slippery thing on the page, and so it remains onstage.

The plot sees a writer called Daniel Quinn, who pens crime fiction under a pseudonym, become embroiled in the case of a private detective, named Paul Auster.

Quinn meets with an individual called Peter Stillman, who was used as a human lab rat by his insane father, shut up in a dark room for years, without language. He starts to track Stillman’s father around the city, but the case is essentially a catalyst for his undoing as a human.

He loses his home, his sense of self; language fails him, the city consumes him, he begins to unravel. He still has words for a while, but even they fade.

Leo Warner’s production is full of striking imagery. The sight of Quinn’s naked body curled against an exploding star-scape is beautiful. There is something so pure and poetic about this juxtaposition.

There is also some ingenious doubling, as the line between Quinn and Auster blurs, as well as some old-fashioned stage magic mixed in with the technical innovation.

The production comes as close to making a graphic novel live on stage as it’s possible to get at this point in time, but it never completely makes a case for itself as a theatrical experience. The narration is a factor. Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation is almost too faithful to the source material, capturing what was fascinating, but also frustrating, about the original.

The use of an exterior voice quickly becomes distancing and the nature of the staging means the actors are limited in what they can do; only Jack Tarlton, as Stillman, makes much of a mark. The cast’s job is mainly to stand in the right place as the walls melt around them.

For all that is awesome and audacious about it, City of Glass is strangely unsatisfying. It does feel like an intriguing stepping stone though – an indication of where theatre might be going and what it might become.

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Technically innovative and visually extraordinary adaption of Paul Auster’s slippery novella