Paul Auster’s detective novel with a metaphysical twist, which is part of his New York Trilogy, has been turned into a visually stunning and compelling adaptation courtesy of writer Duncan MacMillan, director Leo Warner and the breathtaking stage designs of 59 Productions.
Alone at night in his New York apartment, thriller writer Daniel Quinn (played by Mark Edel-Hunt and Chris New), who is grieving over the death of his wife and young son, takes a phone call from a man trying to contact the Paul Auster Detective Agency. At first he dismisses it as a wrong number but after the increasingly desperate caller rings back several times, Quinn’s curiosity gets the better of him and he assumes the role of detective and the identity of Auster.
He is summoned to the home of Peter Stillman (Jack Tarlton), a man emotionally damaged by a childhood trauma at the hands of his father — also Peter Stillman, also played by Jack Tarlton. Stillman believes his father is still a threat to his life and engages Quinn/Auster to trace and follow Stillman senior.
To say that our would-be gumshoe is then lured into a world where all is not as it seems hardly covers it. What starts as a fairly traditional noirish tale of a private detective working for a mysterious wealthy client, with the requisite femme fatale in tow, morphs into a surreal and unsettling story that ultimately might (or might not) be unfolding only in the mind of a man deranged by grief.
Warner marshals the whole thing superbly, combining stagecraft with tricks and illusions to demonstrate time shifts and scenarios that are almost cinematic — two people on stage at the same time playing the same person for example — to create a work that falls somewhere between a play and an otherworldly virtual reality game.
The work of set designer Jenny Melville and video designer Lysander Ashton sets a new benchmark for theatre design. In the blink of an eye, Quinn’s rundown apartment is transformed into the Stillman mansion and then into a bustling Grand Central Station. And it’s all further enhanced by Gareth Fry’s edgy sound design.
In the end you might be left with more questions than answers by a plot that twists and wrong-foots the audience at every turn (even to the extent of who played whom) in a cerebral, richly textured and multi-layered examination of identity and time that will not so much linger long in the memory as worm its way into your consciousness.
City of Glass is at the Lyric, Hammersmith until 20 May