City of Glass @ HOME, Manchester

Paul Auster's meta-noir City of Glass is brought to the stage via the high-tech wizardry of 59 Productions. The visuals are dazzling, but the adaptation fails to capture the nightmarish dread of the cult novel

Review by Jamie Dunn | 10 Mar 2017

How does one go about adapting for the stage a beguiling piece of meta-noir? That seems to be the primary challenge faced by playwright Duncan Macmillan and director Leo Warner, of 59 Productions, as they take on cult novella City of Glass.

The story follows author Daniel Quinn, a writer of low-rent detective fiction, who is mistaken for a private investigator named Paul Auster. Another Paul Auster shows up later, but like Quinn, he’s a writer – he's currently working on an essay about who really penned Don Quixote. And, of course, there is another Paul Auster in the mix, the real life author of City of Glass. The self-reflexivity is dizzying, and that’s before we even get to the zig-zagging plot.

Quinn finds himself called upon to help a strange young man named Peter Stillman, who spent his childhood locked in a windowless room as part of an arcane language experiment his father (also named Peter) was conducting. Stillman Sr has just been released from a 13-year stretch in a mental asylum and Stillman Jr fears that his father means to do him harm. Quinn’s job is straightforward enough – tail the older man and report on his movements – but the mind-bending journey our protagonist soon finds himself if far from simple.

The supreme craft of this production is undeniable. Warner and his 59 Productions team are specialists in video and projection design, and are best known, perhaps, for their stunning Deep Time piece that opened last year's Edinburgh International Festival and seemed to take the city's castle on a journey through time and space. For City of Glass, these video whizzes turn the HOME stage into a vivid liquid canvas that morphs before our eyes using intricately designed lighting projection and animations.

Quinn’s threadbare bachelor pad becomes the Stillmans’ richly upholstered apartment in a blink of an eye, while in the next second we’re at Grand Central Station, where Quinn has the discombobulating option of following one of two Stillmans he finds on the platform; as impressive as the high-tech light show is the good ol’ fashioned sleight of hand that lets us believe two Stillmans, both played by Jack Tarlton, are on stage simultaneously.

The play is full of these sly moments of doubling. Often we’ll find a brace of Quinns on stage, and when the psudo-detective (for the most part played by Mark Edel-Hunt) meets his doppelganger Auster (Chris New), it becomes clear how this particular bit of stage magic was achieved. The practical decision of having Vivienne Acheampong play all the female parts also helps accentuate the idea of blurring identities.

In Auster’s book, which slyly deconstructs the detective novel and plays with notions of language as well as identity, it becomes increasingly unclear if the strange machinations of the plot are actually happening within the world of the story, or simply playing out in the disturbed protagonist’s mind. By visualising such a work, the moments that could read as fantasy on the page unavoidably feel closer to reality. Warner never quite surmounts this problem: we believe the case exists because we can see Quinn’s client and mark, and it’s difficult to make the fabric of reality loosen when everything on stage feels so concrete.

A bigger problem is that Macmillan’s adaptation sticks slavishly close to the source material, bringing with it a hardboiled narration that dominates the action. The stagecraft impresses, but so ubiquitous is Quinn's inner monologue that it can feel like we’re watching an animated radio play at times, with the actors looking a little lost amid the changing backdrops. And despite the dreamlogic effects, the nightmarish quality of the material never bubbles to the surface because the performers rarely get the opportunity to connect with the audience, who’re more likely distracted by the animated poster above Quinn’s settee or the tremulous neoclassical paintings adorning Stillman’s drawing room.

Home, Manchester, until 18 March

Lyric Hammersmith, 20 April-20 May