The Glasshouse made its northern premiere last week at 53Two, bringing the production back to the stage for the centenary of the end of World War One.
The production was last shown in 2014 (the centenary of the beginning of World War One) in London and was met to rave reviews, being nominated for multiple OFFIE’s and winning one.
The play follows George Moon (Sam Adamson) and Pip (Max Saunders-Singer, also the writer), who are both locked in the same makeshift prison, known as ‘The Glasshouse’. They are guarded by Corporal Harper (Simon Naylor) and Private Blythe (Corin Silva), with the latter far more authoritarian than the former.
It’s northern debut didn’t disappoint.
Upon walking into the theatre, the audience are instantly met by the sight of Moon tied up, jarring and jolting from side to side in terror. He’s suffering the effects of PTSD, or shell shock as it was known at the time.
Adamson is fantastic as George Moon throughout, bearing every emotion under the sun, writhing in fear as shells explode above him.
He sits at the start with a noose limply hung over where he lay, which stays above him both physically and in spirit throughout. He’s then joined by Pip, a conscientious objector, who proclaims his pacifism without fear of his superiors.
At one point in the first act, Corporal Harper loosely quotes Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade, shouting “ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die”, which is in essence the moral conundrum that the play presents.
Pip does question why, and for it he is met with torture in a cell, but he persists and his ideals don’t falter.
We see his words have an effect on Corporal Harper, and through a fantastic performance from Simon Naylor we can see every emotion splashed across his face as he questions his own morality.
Whilst the characters backstories are kept fairly secret throughout, the actors did mass amounts of research into their backgrounds which can clearly be seen in their performance.
MM sat down with Simon and Max before the opening night, and Simon tells me that he feels “he knows Harper inside out, you (the audience) don’t know about Harper’s parents but I know all about it. You have to research to be able to perform any piece.”
The authenticity of the production helps this also, as Max was inspired to write the play from a true story he read in a newspaper.
“A journalist found this story of a conscientious objector on the frontline in France who refused to fight. He was kept in a dungeon in a castle in the UK, then he was shipped out there and told he was going to fight and if he didn’t he’d be executed.
“He was being marched over a hill at dawn to be shot and he bumped into his brother by complete coincidence, who was an officer. Fortunately his brother was connected and sent a letter, got him off the charge and saved his life. That was the genesis, the starting point for the production.”
After this, Max spent three years researching and writing the play, making sure every bit of dialogue and slang was perfect and of the time.
Simon reiterated the importance of this, saying: “You can’t do this play without costume or without absolutely going for that naturalistic, realistic feel. Right down to the language, we’re not allowed to say ‘yeah’ we have to say ‘ yes’, because ‘yeah’ didn’t exist.”
As the relationship between the characters on stage grows, a palpable anxiety also grows – as everyone is aware of the scenario, the hanging noose making it all to clear to the audience that these are prisoners potentially at their life end.
The performers truly do bounce off each other perfectly in the play, each complimenting each other nicely.
Simon told MM: “There is no beating that feeling of standing on stage and the camaraderie and the fear.
“It’s a fact I regurgitate time and time again but apparently on an opening night a troop of actors will exert the same amount of adrenalin were they in a car crash. And people wonder why they get so close and bond so tightly, we’re all going through a horrific experience.”
BUCKET OF WATER
The play isn’t all doom and gloom however, there are some genuinely very funny moments throughout and because of the intimacy of 53Two, the audience feel just as involved in the onstage banter as the actors.
53Two is the perfect venue for a production such as The Glasshouse, its intimacy perfectly suits the intensity of the play, with every thud, smack and gasp riveting through the audience. At one point the crowd get splash back from a bucket of water at the front of the stage, materialising the intimate vibe of the night.
The set is fantastically made, with authentic props and innovative styling, Max tells me before the show that he sees it as a character in itself.
He continued: “It needs that (to be a character) because it’s a confined space. It’s a pressure cooker, it all happens inside this ramshackle prison, and that’s a really important aspect of it.
“Dave Howell was the gaffer on building this, but all the actors were involved in building the set, which I think was really important because we have ownership over that.”
It’s encouraging to see a production as such have such a diverse crowd on it’s opening night. Simon said beforehand, this is a play aimed at everyone (above the age of 16), and the audience was a mixture of all age groups, as oppose to the older audience that in my experience can generally be seen at WW1/WW2 plays.
Simon and Max reiterate beforehand, that whilst this may be a play set in the 1910s, the themes presented, such as attitudes to mental health and toxic masculinity, are still very relevant to younger audiences today.
Whilst it may present itself as a war play, it’s so much more – it’s a play about morality, about faith, and most importantly, a play to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Max was keen when writing it to focus on these mistakes and the taboo aspect of them.
“It was telling a side of the story that hasn’t really been investigated or told before. It’s one of those areas because looking back at The Great War, what people sacrificed was immense.
“But on the same side of that there are the stories of the shell shock victims and PTSD, and I think the story stands up now in the way that we treat people with PTSD.
“I think actually our mentality has shifted when it comes to war now and what it means, especially after going into Iraq and Afghanistan our whole perception of that has moved on and our relationship with soldiers. It’s not taboo as a subject but I think it’s hugely relevant.
Simon and Max were confident that the arts were allowing us to learn from our mistakes and change attitudes.
“It’s sort of why the arts exist,” said Simon.
‘NOT JUST BLACK AND WHITE’
“Not necessarily to change opinion but to ensure there is an open playing field. Definitely since Iraq and Afghanistan there’s been so many films out and so many theatre productions, such as ‘Days of Significance’ and ‘The Mark of Cain’.
“They’ve all said: ‘look war happens but it’s not just black and white’, there’s a massive mixing pot of different opinions, different actions, different decisions. I think the arts have had a massive impact on that.”
The play runs until Armistice Day, and is a fantastic way to celebrate 100 years since the end of the war. It’s certain to make anyone watching appreciate the moral complexities of the conflict and come to a better understanding of the experiences soldiers had.
Max told MM that before the dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Sam Adamson who plays Moon, gave a small speech in the dressing room, where he summarised the importance of the play smartly, saying that whilst the story itself may be fiction, this actually happened to people. That’s why this play is vitally important, and why it’s message must be seen.
The Glasshouse is running at 53Two until Armistice Day, November 11.
Tickets are £10 or £8 for concessions.
There will be a ‘rapid response’ night on November 5, where three writers who have the seen the play will perform a 15-minute piece in response based off the themes of The Glasshouse, with all proceeds going to The Poppy Appeal.
Tickets can be purchased for all events here.