There’s a scene half way through the new theatre adaptation of City of Glass where you realise that you’re watching (spoiler alert) a man disintegrating psychologically rather than trying to prevent a potential crime being committed. But I’d better rewind a bit first. City of Glass is an version for stage of Paul Auster’s novel adapted by the writer Duncan MacMillan and directed by Leo Warner; it is staged by 59 Productions, which specialises in combining technology and art to tell stories in a range of disciplines. The play opened at HOME in Manchester and is playing at the Lyric in Hammersith until 20th May.
It tells the story of a 35-year old writer, once known as Daniel Quinn, who is living on his own after the death of his wife and young son, unexplained in the play, who has given up a literary career to write detective novels under the name of William Wilson, which happens to be the name of a New York Mets player. At least, this may be true. One day he takes a call at home from someone looking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency, who fears that her husband’s life may be in danger. He takes the case. Well, you can see where this might be heading. (And I should add that I haven’t read the book; I’m reviewing the play here.)
In fact Auster appears in the play, as he does in the novel, and has a conversation with Quinn/Wilson explaining an elaborate theory as to why Don Quixote goes to such lengths to pretend that he’s not the author of the book within a book in Don Quixote:
AUSTER: The theory I present in the essay is that Sancho Panza Dictated the story to the barber and the priest, Don Quixote’s friends
AUSTER, talking across the NARRATOR (the script says he’s momentarily drowned out by the narrator): … They had the manuscript translated into Arabic. Cervantes found the translation and and had it rendered back into Spanish, and then published the book The Adventures of Don Quixote.
NARRATOR, talking simultaneously with AUSTER: Auster was obviously enjoying himself, but the precise nature of that pleasure eluded Quinn. It seemd to be a kind of soundless laughter, a joke that stopped short of its punchline.
QUINN: But why would Sancho and the others go to all that trouble?
AUSTER: To cure Don Quixote of his madness. The want to save their friend. [Emphasis in the script.]
The moment you realise that we ae watching a breakdown is when Wilson starts tracing the routes around New York that the routes followed each day by Stillman, the man he’s been tailing–and we see all of this back projected on the stage, for the video design, isby Lysander Ashton, is a star of the show–spell out the words “The Tower of Babel,” the very same thing that Stillman had written a controversial book about. It reminded me of nothing so much as the sequence in A Beautiful Mind where we start to suspect that John Nash is delusional about working on a top secret national security project.
It’s not always an easy play to watch as much of it is told in voiceover, which I realise now, writing this, may well have been voice in Quinn/Wilson’s head. But it is a compelling piece of theatre, precisely because it disturbs our expectations about theatre and partly because the outstanding lighting and video design give it the feel of a film, or of a hallucination.
The image at the top of the post is courtesy of the Lyic, Hammersmith, and is used with thanks.