Theater Review: City of Glass, by Paul Auster, at HOME Manchester

Projections as part of a theatrical production are not new, but they seem to be coming of age. The Royal Shakespeare’s recent production of The Tempest used some interesting projections to highlight its stage set and characters, though the play would have been excellent without them, and not everyone in the theater could see them.

Another approach is that taken by 59 Productions in their adaption of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass at HOME Manchester (and soon to be at the Lyric Hammersmith in London). Here, the projections are an integral part of the production, providing a multitude of sets in front of which the characters interact.

City of Glass is the first novel in Auster’s New York Trilogy. It’s a sort of metaphysical noir tale, where Daniel Quinn receives a phone call one evening, which is a wrong number. He’s intrigued by this, and when someone calls back and asks if this is the Paul Auster Detective Agency, he goes along. He gets drawn into an odd case where a strange man fears that his father is going to kill him.

City of glass

(Photos: Jonathan Keenan)

(I wish the theater had some production photos that show the entire stage and the projections, because they really are clever; the photos above don’t really do justice to this unique element of the production. )

A voice over narrates the parts in between the dialog, giving the production the tone of a film noir, and the stage changes from scene to scene, through a clever use of projections. In the first scene, Quinn is in his two-room apartment, and this set serves for the entire production. Different elements are projected on the walls in different scenes, showing where the action takes place. There is also Peter Stillman’s apartment, a diner, Grand Central Station, the street in front of a hotel, and an alleyway, among others. At no time do the projections seem fake; they blend into the background. There are a couple of scenes where screens descend so projections can be made closer to the front of the stage, but the rest of the play is all performed in this simple set. All this is accompanied by a creative use of music to set moods and move the plot along.

City of glass2

Adapted from Auster’s novel, and from the graphic novel adaptation of it, this production highlights the visual elements of the story, but it’s not a story that adapts well to the stage. It’s full of meta-fictional references (to Paul Auster himself, who appears as a character, to Don Quixote and the book-within-a-book of that novel, and more), and it can be confusing to those who haven’t read the text. In addition, the denouement of the story, which works well on the page, fizzles a bit on stage.

Nevertheless, this is a thrilling production, brought to life by a small team of excellent actors (including two actors playing the role of Daniel Quinn). The technical element does stand out, but in service to the text, and the fast pace (1:45, with no intermission, that sped by) makes this a very enjoyable production. I can almost excuse the let-down of the ending having enjoyed the journey so much.