City of Glass takes all the elements of a film noir and throws them up in the air. Some of them land, and some of them float about and remain hard to pin down. Parts of Leo Warner’s production are knowingly enjoyable, parts of it extremely tongue-in-cheek, and parts of it, admittedly, are plain confusing.
Based on Paul Auster’s novel, the plot centres around a writer, Daniel Quinn, whose wife and child have died in unspecified circumstances. Quinn answers a wrong-number call in the middle of the night, and ends up entangled in the case of a man who may or may not want to kill his son. This mirroring of fathers and sons is complicated further when Quinn encounters a character called Paul Auster, also a writer, and who seems to have Quinn’s parallel life – with wife, son, and eerily similar apartment.
Plot-wise, it’s complicated, enhanced by Warner’s clever staging and doubling – we often get two Quinns on stage at once (Chris New and Mark Edel-Hunt). Quinn, who writes detective stories under a pseudonym, receives the mysterious phone call. The caller, convinced his life is in danger, wants to contact a private detective called Paul Auster. The ringing phone in the dead of night, the mistaken identities, the femme fatale – all the noir tropes are present, but the story spins them around, bamboozling the reader/audience, and unfortunately losing something along the way.
The convoluted and layered plot is kept reasonably clear by a narrator, mostly unseen, whose voice is heard over the action. Sometimes, the voice describes scenes as the characters perform the actions, a bit like a school play. Although this god-like intervention is useful in keeping track of what’s going on, it feels like listening to an audio-book with some visuals, rather than a satisfying theatrical experience.
That said, the visuals are astonishing. The whole production is stunningly detailed, with 59 Productions’ projections transforming the stage from run-down apartment to railway station to plush, portrait-lined house in the blink of an eye. Video Designer Lysander Ashton has done a beautiful job, and the mapping is perfectly precise. As Quinn’s reality starts to crumble around him, the projections shatter like glass, or dissolve into smoke. The Tower of Babel grows out of New York City; a lost Eden grows across the set. It’s the best use of video on stage I’ve ever seen.
It’s a shame that the play itself feels a little bit lost. Vivienne Acheampong plays all the female characters with aplomb, despite having very few lines, and Edel-Hunt and New make Quinn a likeable, if confused, man. Jack Tarlton multi-roles as several generations of the Stillman family impressively, and there should be enough tension in the murderous plot to keep the audience engaged.
Unfortunately, while Duncan Macmillan’s script is witty and precise, there’s little sense of why Quinn decides to impersonate Auster-the-detective, and why he allows the case to take over his life so completely that he ends up naked, homeless and losing his mind. Quinn’s grief and loneliness are hinted at but not developed, meaning that his actions feel misguided at best, and plain silly at worst.
By casting Quinn adrift in this swirling narrative, Macmillan and Warner don’t leave you with much to cling on to as the projections expand to encompass a star-spangled universe or cover the set in scribbled ideas. Though not unappealing, Quinn is an everyman, casting about for meaning amidst the chaos. The chaos is beautifully depicted, but the meaning is harder to find. It may be more spectacle than substance, but what a spectacle.
City of Glass is on until 21st May 2017. Click here for more details.