I am the light.
It can be hard to talk about light in the theatre. In its immateriality, it is easy to forget that it has been created by material means, that it has been designed rather than just being there. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design for The Glow makes me appreciate the visceral potential and subtlety of light, adeptly collaborating with Alistair McDowall’s script to create something approaching magic. The lighting is paired with Merle Hensel’s grey, sloping-walled set, whose walls sometimes bursts into fantastical projections, or radiate with an ethereal glow.
The first scene of the play takes place almost in darkness, the beams of a lantern finding a figure crouched on the floor. The light creeps up, as if our eyes are becoming accustomed to the dark, and the lantern inches closer. Mrs Lyall, a self-proclaimed ‘spiritualist medium of some renown’, has come to the asylum to find a new assistant – or rather, a ‘conduit’, through whom she can summon spirits. In the depths of the asylum, forgotten by the staff, a woman waits. She has no memory of who she is or how she came to be there. Mrs Lyall takes her into her home, to the chagrin of her son, Mason, and enlists her in the sÃ©ances.
This is the first part of The Glow, lasting roughly 40-minutes, after which director Vicky Featherstone places the interval. In its depiction of Mrs Lyall’s exploitation of the woman she calls Sadie as a ‘vessel’ for spirits to pass through, it raises some interesting ethical and supernatural questions. Are the visions Sadie sees manifestations of trauma or spirits, or both? However, although enlivened by humour, it also seems familiar. I think I know where this scene is going to go; Mrs Lyall exploits Sadie till she snaps. As I probably should have expected from McDowall’s expectation defying forms, I am proved wrong. Sadie summons up a germ of light in her palm and zaps Mrs Lyall into 343AD.
After the interval, the play resolves itself into something far stranger and more engaging, flickering in and out of focus between different times: 1348, 1993, 1979. Sadie – just The Woman now – can’t always control where she goes. In many times, there are characters who want to exploit her, to take her power for their own, or to tell her story for her, denying her agency. The Woman is on her own quest, to find out who she really is. People regard her as a monster, a word that carries both senses of terror and awe in this play.
For me, the emotional heart of The Glow lies in the 1990s strand. The Woman meets an irascible but kind retired nurse who lets her stay with her and doesn’t really question why she never eats or sleeps. The 1300s strand is the least convincing, the knight character, Haster, verging on parody. In the 1970s, a man is researching a mythical woman, who appears surrounded by a glow across art and literature through time. However, prising apart the temporal strands of The Glow to describe them does not do justice to the play’s chronological intricacies. As soon as it finishes, the play sends you back to reconsider the beginning with a new perspective on time.
As the Woman, Ria Zmitrowicz is at first enigmatic. When she does eventually speak to Mrs Lyall, her voice is hoarse and rusty, as if she hasn’t spoken for centuries. At times, she blazes into light with rage. At times, in the gaps left between McDowall’s terse lines, her character begins to seem human. Rakie Ayola is supremely imposing and poised as Mrs Lyall, ably supported by Fisaya Akinade providing comic relief as her reluctant son.
The Glow is a mind-bending, ambitious play, which attempts impossible things, demonstrating the power of theatre to bridge the gap between imagination and reality even if it can’t always reach. A dazzling final monologue telescopes time from before humans began to after their demise, Zmitrowicz illuminated by projections of fire and planets. McDowall attempts to observe humanity from a perspective that is beyond the human. As the play shows, while many humans throughout history have been greedy and cruel, there have also been powerful acts of love, sparks in the darkness.
The Glow is on at the Royal Court till 5th March. More info here.