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A CurtainUp London Review
Leaves of Glass
Set in London's East End, the play follows two brothers. Steven (Ben Whishaw) is the owner of a successful graffiti removal business, his mother's favourite son and married to the beautiful Debbie (Maxine Peake). His younger brother Barry (Trystan Gravelle) is an alcoholic, drop-out art student and apparently only survives through Steven's financial and emotional support. Still haunted by their father's death years earlier, both brothers struggle with the past and the undigested pain of long-ago, murky tragedy.
Philip Ridley's writing is urgent and compelling. He can convey an unmistakable, although indefinable, whiff of menace beneath the most mundane of conversations. The scenes are short and fractured — giving the audience just brief, tense glimpses of the characters' world. There is no sense of logical scene by scene progression and little indication of the amount of time passing between scenes. Instead, the audience must work to construct the play's narrative through seemingly random but revealing hints.
The play itself centres around the characters' (not always successful) attempts to piece together their true history, in the face of illusory and deluded memories. Bafflement and uncertainty plague them, as they repeat versions of the refashioned past to each other. In this way, the characters' own flawed narrative impulse mirrors the audience's viewing experience, as both make assumptions and try to assemble a plausible story from scattered and incomplete clues.
The aesthetic of this production is chilly, brittle and shiny: metallic and glass surfaces abound. A mirror panel sits at the back of the stage, giving the audience a slightly distorted reflection of the action. In fact, glass acts as a running motif throughout this production — deceptively beautiful but hard, unfeeling and even harmful. The action takes place in a pool of light, surrounded by black, and it seems as if the characters act in a vacuum. There are two revolving halves to the stage, echoing the two brothers' intimately linked, yet see-saw relationship.
This co-dependant relationship is the core of the play and the two actors are superb, as if the parts were written for them. Ben Whishaw is excellent at portraying the slick veneer and the niggling sense that he is perhaps simply a force of negation. Trystan Gravelle is also perfect as the artistic, flamboyant Barry whose personality has been irredeemably harmed by past catastrophe.
Leaves of Glass is not exactly easy viewing (and not just because the play's content and emotion can be disturbing) but because of the mental energy involved in piecing together what might have happened to these characters. Because of this, however, this play is far more rewarding and it will rattle around your head for hours afterwards. At times funny and moving, this production is intelligent, emotionally unsettling and intellectually stimulating.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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