Theatre review: Tao of Glass by Phelim McDermott and Philip Glass

I went to see a play about a series of events that never happened. And I loved the events so much that I went to see them never happen twice. And in their retelling, they happened. 

black and white image of objects and a piano
Objects that become percussion instruments

Tao of Glass is the result of a collaboration between actor/stage director Phelim McDermott and composer Philip Glass. Simply put, this is the story of dreams; those that are let go of, the mourning that entails, and the later realising of these dreams at a different level. The play, co-directed with Kirsty Housley, received its world premiere as part of MIF at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

Combining elements of Taoist thinking around imperfections and the core essence of nothingness, the play becomes a much deeper meditation about struggles to move beyond the mundane to some sense of sentient whole. 

At the centre of the play are layers of loss and bereavement. The loss of never realising Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen as a play that was to be a collaboration between Sendak, McDermott and Glass due to Sendak’s death. But the adaption is realised through poignant puppetry during this play. Sendak is brought to life with his gravely voice bellowing out

You’ve got to show the pee-pee!

A reference to the naked boy character from In The Night Kitchen and ensuing prudish censorship of the original drawings when the book was released during 1960’s America. Hours after the performance, my seven year old daughter is still dining out on the thrill of such a delicious line.

Bereavement is also present through the loss of love and the breaking of a fragile heart. The loss of a glass table that becomes a symbol of financial folly and a millstone of materialism. The loss of the collaboration that almost meant Tao of Glass didn’t happen.

In another tale, the audience never knows why McDermott follows his dad and doesn’t speak to him during a teenage visit to Manchester – but the sense the deep grief that revolves around the moment is tacitly felt. Tying all this together is Amy and Arnold Mindell’s theories of Deep Democracy where

‘awareness is needed to literally bring democracy’s most cherished beliefs and ideals to life’.

(Mindell, 2019)

Such awareness is feverishly needed in today’s social and political reality. 

A tableau of set pieces and ideas, the play moves from childhood memories to their adult realisation in whatever form. Broken, repaired, different but still beautiful – the Japanese art of Kintsugi is deployed as the metaphor for many of McDermott’s life events. 

The audience experiences the sense of wondrous emotional elevation that music brings during its composition, and the way notes and rhythms pour down like summer rain. It does so quite literally in the form of Glass’ sheet music drifting from the ceiling. This is juxtaposed by the constraints of creativity via repetition of a soliloquy that feels like it is going nowhere except to become madder and wilder; repetition becomes a physical tightening snake of sellotape and sheet music frustration.

The combination of Glass’ music and the simplicity of emotions serve to wash over the audience in waves that are climactic and almost too much to bear. It is impossible to see this play without tears welling at some point.

Glass’s score brings together familiar elements of Glassworks – an album that is woven into the play from the beginning – with original compositions. These pieces are spare, gentle, reflective yet conversely rich, penetrating and hypnotic.

The pinnacle is Glass’ partnership with McDermott through their exploration of how to reach a person in a state of coma. Glass, not present in the theatre, is wholly emoted through the Steinway piano that plays itself; a recording of his original notes explored next to McDermott as he lay on the studio floor.

black and white close up of a young girl
My daughter in mid flow telling me about the best bits of Tao of Glass

My daughter spent the performance totally entranced. She said to me that McDermott’s memories of his childhood, brought to life in conversation with the boy puppet, were most touching. From her young perspective, perhaps she could sense that boyhood wonder and innocence before opportunities are lost.

Tao of Glass is so impossibly beautiful; from the sheet paper puppetry, the musical performance to the choreography and interplay between the supporting performers and McDermott. 

There won’t ever be another play like Tao of Glass. It is a theatrical moment borne from years of anxious and episodic gestation that is anchored in the relationship between McDermott and Glass.

A week of intense workshop experimentation finally brought Tao of Glass to a mesmerising coherence that slips through Mindell’s consensus reality into dreamland and perhaps into the audience’s essence. Flirtations of memory, there to access again during rare moments of deep awareness. 

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