The Glasshouse, currently playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre, is a powerful and deeply moving drama evoking the horrors of World War One. It’s a piece of new writing, marking playwright Max Saunders-Singer’s first full-length play, but this production deserves to be seen and we urge you to go along.
Saunders-Singer has thoroughly researched his subject, but The Glasshouse is no dry academic thesis. The human stories within it remain at the foreground, and the play is an immersive and emotional experience for any audience.
The Glasshouse deals with the shocking treatment of the men who, for different reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t fight in the trenches. All the action takes place in a single makeshift prison close to the trenches (DoBo Designs’ set is excellent). The relentless sound of explosions and gunfire at night time remind us of an unseen enemy – but The Glasshouse is a neat inversion of the usual war narrative, revealing how war can make us lose our humanity to those ostensibly on the same side.
The decent Corporal Harper (Simon Naylor) and the psychotic Private Blythe (John Askew) oversee the incarceration of conscientious objector Pip (Max Saunders-Singer) and deserter Moon (Sam Adamson). The first half of the play examines the shifting power play between the characters, with Harper protecting the prisoners from the worst excesses of Blythe’s cruelty; whilst the second half builds towards the outcomes of the court-martials. The Glasshouse is a well-structured play that is constantly inventive in turning up the tension.
The cast is impressive in bringing The Glasshouse to life. John Askew is disturbing as the loathsome Blythe. The sleazy malevolence and beady-eyed sneering reminds us of a young Leonard Rossiter, with a similar physicality to his performance. He contrasts neatly with Simon Naylor as the affable corporal, who is excellent at conveying the dilemma of a decent and moral man caught in a time and a place where his principles are almost impossible to live by. The playwright Max Saunders-Singer takes on the part of Pip, a conscientious objector, and it’s his journey of being pushed to the very limit to find out how tenable his ideals are around which the story is built. Saunders-Singer is completely persuasive, striking a neat balance between sympathetic and infuriating, as people willing to die for an ideal often are. We were enormously impressed by Sam Adamson as Moon, the young Irish teenager suffering from shell shock, post-traumatic stress – all the debilitating psychoses that weren’t understood a century ago. His level of commitment in playing a mentally unbalanced and deeply traumatised young man is breathtaking and heartbreaking in turns.
There are moments in The Glasshouse that draw gasps and tears from the audience. It is a strong and compelling piece of theatre, and there are only a few things that stop this review from being an outright rave. There are a few too many scenes and transitions. The most powerful scenes are the ones that build over the same time (an especially brilliant piece of writing comes when we are encouraged to laugh as a lover left at home is recalled, whilst we simultaneously dread what will happen next). We also found the rapid twists and turns as the play draws to a conclusion not entirely credible, even if dramatically satisfying.
Nevertheless, Grindstone, the newly-formed theatre company behind The Glasshouse, show enormous talent and an ability to bring theatre vividly to life, and we’re excited to see where they go next. In the centenary of WWI, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, The Glasshouse provides a fascinating debate on how best to commemorate the dead, and the lessons we have to draw from our shared history. If you want to see a thoughtful piece of new writing and a stylish production that brings the best out of the talent involved, we suggest you don’t miss this one.