Alix Sobler’s comic, albeit, philosophical tale of a slender princess who swallows a glass piano the day her mother absconds from a soul-destroying marriage, is a metaphor for the stultifying power of moral convention and the price to pay for those who defy it.
The narrative of The Glass Piano is based on a real-life phenomenon, that of Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria, a young woman who lived in the 19th century and believed she had swallowed a glass grand piano. Apparently, the delusion that parts of one’s body were made of glass was first recorded in the 16th century (The Glass Piano) and, under Max Key’s skilful direction, The Glass Piano addresses this idiosyncratic belief – along with the social mores that may influence it – like a piece of classical music written in sonata form: exposition, development and recapitulation.
In its opening scene, we immediately sense the tense relationship that exists between would-be poet King Ludvig (Timothy Walker) and his recalcitrant servant, Galstina (Suzan Sylvester). The huge feather duster she wields seems more like military armament than an implement to swipe clean the castle’s smoky mirrors and gothic furniture – this is no ordinary relationship between a servant and a member of the ruling class.
And when Princess Alexandra (Grace Molony) makes her entrance in the same scene, it is her movements, both believable and sympathetic, that convey her fragility as a motherless child. We do not doubt the need for her crablike gait as she inches sideways, clutching the bustle of her gothic Victorian dress, to avoid obstructions that might shatter the glass piano inside her. Immediately, we understand her delusion as the physical embodiment of her loneliness and pain.
As in a gothic fairy tale, if only a handsome prince would come to alleviate her misery. And one does arrive shortly, Lucien Bonaparte (Laurence Ubong Williams), a handsome philologist, replete with the weight of an infamous surname and a secret that will hinder the budding romance between himself and the melancholy Alexandra.
Lucien is a divorced man and King Ludvig, who considers divorce to be a moral crime, forbids them to marry. Social conventions must be obeyed, even if one is to suffer eternal misery. Add to this the accompaniment of a concert pianist (Elisabeth Rossiter) whose mood music acts as a fifth character, and you have a thoughtful if not existential play with dark undertones. And this is where The Glass Piano loses its way.
Without revealing its full trajectory, it is a serious play that grapples with alienation and the emotional price of conformity, as well as the feminist themes of social and sexual inequality. However, much of its language is written for belly laughs, which diminishes, rather than enhances, its power. This would be even more problematic if it weren’t for the delicious performances of each of its actors who deserve much credit for ensuring the integrity of The Glass Piano. Finally, a special nod to Hubert Essakow as movement director. His work in helping Grace Molony perfect her crablike gait is sheer mastery.
Review by Loretta Monaco
I do wish I had swallowed a cello.
Not only would the shape be more conducive to living,
but the tenor is far more reflective of my inner life.
Once upon a time, there was a Princess who thought she had swallowed a glass piano. The Glass Piano, a new play by Alix Sobler, is based on the bizarre but true story of Princess Alexandra of Bavaria. Alexandra tiptoes carefully through the palace corridors, turning sideways to pass through doorways, terrified that at the slightest disturbance the piano would shatter inside her. Her father, King Ludwig I, can do nothing to help – until a young man comes to the palace.
Laced with dry humour and featuring evocative period design, Alix Sobler’s stylish play takes place in the 19th century House of Wittelsbach, where four characters are trapped by their situations, and prevented from fulfilling their dreams of love.
Directed by Max Key, who received an Olivier nomination for It Is Easy To Be Dead at Trafalgar Studios. “Max Key’s beautifully orchestrated production.” Michael Billington, The Guardian, 5 Stars
Music composed by Gabriel Prokofiev, the grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, played on stage by pianist Elizabeth Rossiter.
Set and lighting design is by Declan Randell, costume is designed by Deborah Andrews and sound is designed by Emma Laxton.
The Print Room at The Coronet presents
THE GLASS PIANO
by Alix Sobler
Directed by Max Key
Music by Gabriel Prokofiev
26 April – 25 May 2019