Writer: Alix Sobler
Director: Max Key
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Thinking you were made of glass was, apparently, not an unusual psychological condition in the past and in Alix Sobler’s new play at The Print Room Princess Alexandria of Bavaria is certain that as a child she swallowed, whole, a glass piano. This play, based on real people, could be an absurdist tragedy, but for the most part it occupies familiar territory.
There’s much delight at the start of the play as Alexandra, played to perfection by Grace Molony, has to walk sideways through doors and corridors afraid of scratching the piano that rests inside her, protruding from her body like a bustle. She’s been raised to be delicate and precious and it seems that she has internalised these expectations, and now must live in fear of breaking.
But when a visitor comes to the castle to study the feral children in the local hamlets, Alexandra’s piano seems to shrink. The nephew of Napoleon, Lucien Bonaparte is dashing and marriageable, and he believes that a piano is not an obstacle to a happy union. Lucien also inspires Alexandra’s father, King Ludwig, who needs help writing his poetry. Ludwig begins to write love poems to the maid Galstina, who has been his paramour since his wife disappeared.
Like most shows at The Print Room,The Glass Pianolooks beautiful. Declan Randall’s set and lights evoke luxury and loneliness in equal measures and Deborah Andrews’ costumes appear to be have been plucked right out of a 1840s wardrobe. The floor of the stage is so highly polished that tables and bathtubs have precise reflections. And with live piano on stage from Elizabeth Rossiter this is a classy production.
However, the aesthetic can’t quite cover up the play’s problems. Caught between being an intellectual play about language – Bonaparte is a philologist – and a comedy of manners, The Glass Pianois, ultimately, neither, and by the second half Sobler’s ideas wear thin. Increasingly Bonaparte and Ludwig shout platitudes at each other, with the result being that perhaps this play isn’t that different at all.
As Bonaparte Laurence Ubong Williams is patiently idealistic, believing that his past won’t come back to haunt him. Timothy Walker and Suzan Sylvester as Ludwig and Galstina bring comedy to their roles; Ludwig is a blustering fool while Galstina is coy, but wise. Each character is trapped by their social position, and they can only perform the duties expected of them. Indeed, like Bonaparte’s feral children and Ludwig’s feral queen, perhaps freedom can only be achieved when we throw off the chains of language.
The Glass Pianoworks best when it becomes philosophical, but when it debates the problems with divorce it seems very old-fashioned. Like most pianos, this glass one needs tuning.
Runs until 25 May 2019 | Image: Tristram Kenton