Phelim McDermott & Philip Glass - Tao of Glass
Manchester International Festival, 2019
Philip Glass, Phelim McDermott, Kirsty Housley, Chris Vatalaro, David Emmings, Janet Etuk, Jack McNeill, Rakhi Singh, Katherine Tinker, Sarah Wright
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester - 13 June 2019
Struggling to get my head around what exactly Tao of Glass was all about, the only word that came to mind during the interval was 'magical'. That's perhaps a rather unoriginal, overused and not particularly helpful choice of description, but thinking about it further, magical perhaps describes the uniqueness of the work. There's the fact that it's a site-specific piece and that it only has a limited lifespan of a run at the Royal Exchange Theatre during the Manchester International Festival, so it's ephemeral and of the moment as theatre should be (although I suspect that the Glass music may resurface in another guise later). There's also the way that it employs unconventional dramatic and musical elements to create something that is truly unique and deeply personal, related to its creators Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott.
There is also something that you can only describe as magical about the nature of the piece in the idea that the work is in fact the creation of the work. Phelim McDermott himself takes centre-stage - quite literally in the round of the Royal Exchange Theatre - and describes in the first half of the show his long running relationship with Philip Glass's music, first as a fan and later as a collaborator. Tao of Glass came about through the failure of a project they had been planning to work on, to bring to the stage In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. Sendak died before the project was able to get off the ground, so McDermott and Glass tried to find other ways of continuing their work together, and it's this that becomes Tao of Glass.
When I first heard about Tao of Glass, the outline description was that it seemed to consist of 10 musical pieces that would be staged by McDermott's company Improbable. The work has evidently evolved considerably in its development, still on-going at the time of its performances, the end result never set in stone but arrived at. One of the central images in the piece is that of the Japanese art of Kintsugi; of a perfect jar that is broken to pieces and then put together again with gold bonding. Essentially that becomes the image for the work itself, the dreamed perfection of a longed for project with Sendak dashed and then pieced together into something new and different.
Whether it's Glass's music that bonds the broken fragments of McDermott's script or the other way around isn't the question. What matters it that it creates a perfect new creation that neither could achieve quite the same way on their own. And it really does. It at least gives Philip Glass the opportunity to work outside traditional boundaries again. That's often where his best work is achieved, whether that's in opera, which he redefined by refusing to follow any conventional expectations with Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, or how he worked in collaboration to redefine the role soundtracks play in films like Koyanisqaatsi and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Lately Glass has been more conventional, even in his Bowie Symphonies, but it's clear that working with McDermott (on Satyagraha, Akhnaten and The Perfect American) has revived a new imaginative, instinctive and improvisational influenced approach to working again.
While there are some new dimensions added to Glass's (some might say limited) musical repertoire, Tao of Glass is very much McDermott's baby. He is the motivational force behind the concept and it's his personal experience that fuels the journey of the piece. Actually it is a collaborative effort even in this since a lot of it has to do with the director's relationship with Philip Glass and his music. Right from the start he talks about the discovery of Glassworks, about recognising Philip Glass walking through London during the opening of Akhnaten at the ENO in 1985 and following him through the streets of Covent Garden.
McDermott's picks up and joins other Kintsugi fragments into the narration, going right back to childhood reminiscence to consider where the fascination for the magic of the theatre came from. Strangely, it's the 'failures', the broken pots, that provide the strongest feelings; imagining the children's theatrical entertainment Billy's Wonderful Kettle that he never got to see, his imagination undoubtedly more wonderful than the actual show. There's even a puppet show 'trailer' outline for how the Sendak project might have looked. There's also the story of McDermott's broken glass coffee table that allegedly provides the title of the work. The piece is filled with seemingly random stories and anecdotes that nonetheless all seem to connect in unusual ways.
The stories may be simple, anecdotal, but they touch on deeper themes, themes that are relevant to many creators and artists. Where does music come from? Where does inspiration come from? McDermott talks about using meditation, flotation tanks, Taoism and the I-Ching to get in touch with and reach other levels of the subconscious, how to reach those other planes that evidently exist that we visit in dreams and perhaps its the same place people go to in a coma. McDermott describes experimenting with Glass, simulating a coma (insert obvious joke about Glass's music and comas here), that does manage to draw out an entirely new improvised sound and voice from the composer in his effort to reach and connect with the person in a coma state. It's reminiscent a little of Max Richter's Sleep, which evidently is a piece that strives to work on a similar plane direct to the subconscious.
That piece is replicated on a Steinway piano that has recorded the actual keystrokes of Philip Glass playing, and there's an eerie quality to the invisible presence of the composer playing over the keys, but the piece is far from disembodied and there's genuine feeling and reaching out in it. Elsewhere the ensemble plays music that is for the most part in the familiar Glass idiom of repetition and small changes, working hand-in-hand with the meditation and reflections of the narrative. Phelim McDermott, sitting in the audience like a regular theatre-goer at the start of the show before taking to the stage, delivers his story in a hugely engaging and entertaining manner by reaching to out the audience and connecting with them.
It's staged in true Improbable style, semi-improvised, using puppets, sheets of paper with musical notation and sellotape. There's nothing elaborate about the effects, but in conjunction with the music and the storytelling it does indeed exploit the capacity of theatre to create worlds. And not just create worlds, but somehow forge a connection from them through to the audience, creating an extra bond in an extension of the Kintsugi manner. If that's not 'magical' I don't know what is.
The real kicker however is the unexpected and unbilled late appearance of Philip Glass himself in person, stepping onto the stage at the conclusion to play the Opening from Glassworks on the piano accompanied by the ensemble. It's a fulfilment of McDermott's dream from many years ago; not just directing a Glass work, but truly collaborating and sharing a stage with him. And that's what Tao of Glass is all about, or one of the many things that it is about; defining our dreams, breaking them and then rebuilding them into something greater.
Links: Manchester International Festival