Obsession was an English translation of a Dutch stage adaptation of a film adaptation of a novel, and tonight City of Glass is Duncan Macmillan's version not just of Paul Auster's novel, but also specifically of Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel adaptation of the story. Which is itself full of retellings of itself, and who exactly is narrating it is very much up for discussion. To wit, the lead character of Daniel Quinn is played simultaneously by two actors: Chris New and Mark Edel-Hunt occasionally appear on stage together but mostly alternate scenes, swapping places during blackouts. In fact, given how low the lighting is, I imagine people sitting quite far from the stage would have taken a while to realise this was happening, as despite the two men not looking much alike, even from the third row of the stalls it sometimes took a moment to be sure which one was on stage.
All that grey and gloomy lighting comes from the noirish detective thrillers that the story pastiches, the action beginning when Quinn, a writer of pulp detective fiction, is woken up in the middle of the night by a wrong number.
When the caller mistakes him for a private detective called Paul Auster, Quinn decides to play along to distract himself from his grief over his wife and son's deaths some years previously. He gets caught up in the case of Peter (Jack Tarlton) and his wife Virginia (Vivienne Acheampong,) who believe the former's abusive father will try to kill them when he's realeased from a mental institution. The story keeps coming back to themes of the Tower of Babel, and of people over history who've isolated children from birth in the belief that never hearing human language will restore to them the lost language of god.
Don Quixote is another recurring theme, its proto-postmodernism something City of Glass' confusion over its story's provenance takes for its own and expands on. I haven't read Auster's novel, and Macmillan's stage adaptation left me unsure whether I'd like it: Its playing with identity and form is interesting as are some of the recurring ideas, but the story never comes to life and it feels longer than its relatively short running time. And while it's obviously particularly difficicult to get rid of in the noir genre, Macmillan's adaptation uses a huge amount of narration in voiceover, and I always find it frustrating when stage versions of books can't find a more theatrical way of telling the story.
The big selling point of Leo Warner's production are the incredibly high-tech projections by Lysander Ashton and 59 Productions, and they end up being both its highlight and its downfall: The video which acts both as set on Jenny Melville's white walls, transforming them into numerous locations, and as nightmarish visuals of Quinn's mind shattering, really are exceptional, and perfectly timed. But the show relies too much on them, leaving the rest of the storytelling feeling leaden and cold.
It finally finds a balance as it comes to a close and Quinn gets completely lost in a case that doesn't even exist any more, his mental state collapsing and Edel-Hunt giving ain the middle of a vision of exploding stars (New as well, I think, although they're still swapping roles at that point, and as well as the low lighting there's also a long wig and beard to contend with; whenever I could clearly see a face, it was Edel-Hunt.) But getting to that point was a surprisingly hard slog for a show with this much cleverness in its staging, none of which sadly ends up adding to the storytelling.
PS: Before and after the show there's a booth in the bar where you can try a virtual reality prologue to the story. Which is a cool idea but unfortunately if you wear glasses I wouldn't get too excited about it: I had to take mine off to get the VR headpiece on, so couldn't really see the graphics properly, and the sound wasn't up quite high enough either. I liked the 360 degree design of the room you were in, but the main action was a reflection of a face, which seemed to have lots of weird melty effects happening to it, so if you've got 20/20 vision or contacts, and are better at filtering out ambient noise from the bar than I am, it's probably a pretty cool, spooky little start to the evening.
City of Glass by Duncan Macmillan, based on the novel by Paul Auster and the graphic novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, is booking until the 20th of May at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.