When The Jazz Singer announced the arrival of the talkies in 1927, a corner was turned. The medium changed. While this adaption of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by 59 Productions isn’t quite at that transitional point, it feels like it’s leading there.
The production draws inspiration from the graphic novelisation of Auster’s story by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. The stage is split into two cells and animated backdrops are projected onto the set, transforming it in a blink, from a grubby New York apartment to a diner, a railway station, an alley way, Central Park. Skyscrapers erupt from the floor, books colonise shelves, shadows congregate, words bleed from the walls.
But 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. He 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. Quinn starts to track Stillman’s father around the city, but the case becomes a mechanism for his undoing as a human. He loses himself, his home, his sense of self; language fails him, the city consumes him, he unravels. Words remain for a while, but even they fade.
Leo Warner’s production is replete with striking imagery, none more so than the sight of Quinn’s body, naked and exposed, against an exploding star-scape. There is something pure and poetic about this juxtaposition. There is also some ingenious doubling, the line between Quinn and Auster blurring, 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.
Partly this is an issue of narration. Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation is almost too faithful, capturing what was fascinating about the original, as well as its capacity to frustrate. The use of an exterior voice quickly becomes distancing and 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, one reality fracturing into another.
For all that is awesome and audacious about it, City of Glass is strangely unsatisfying. It lacks the playfulness of the work of a company like 1927. It does feel like an intriguing stepping stone though – an indication of where theatre might be going and what it might become.