The Glow by Alistair McDowall – Royal Court Theatre, London
The Glow is an absurdly ambitious play. Its first act is set in 1863, in the household of a Victorian medium, Mrs Lyall, who exploits a patient, extracted from an asylum, whose powers, unlike those of her mistress, are not fraudulent but terrifyingly real. So far, the dramatic structure is conventional, although the subject matter – reality buckling under the harsh gaze of the supernatural – is not. Then Alistair McDowall drops his characters into Roman Britain, 343 AD. Then 1348. Then 1993. Then 1979. Then 1348 again. At one point we pay a brief visit to 500,000 BC, described in the script as the Lower Palaeolithic Age, where an act of brutal violence takes place. The linking character is ‘The Woman’, brilliantly played by Ria Zmitrowicz, a figure who has apparently existed throughout time, an everywoman who reappears in each eras, glimpsed in the backgrounds of paintings. The script even includes an amusing fake academic essay on the myth of The Woman as an appendix. The concept is like a Doctor Who plot opened up beyond the confines of a genre, to encompass limitless possibilities. It is both enthralling and disturbing.
Zmitrowicz continues to bolster her ever-growing reputation with an otherwordly performance, in which she contrives to seem both vulnerable and very dangerous in equal measure. Although she has the power to destroy people, and is seen doing some extremely nasty things to people, she suffers more than everyone else put together – rejected, reviled and used across centuries. In a remarkable final speech, she explains what it is like to watch and participate as humanity comes miraculously to life, then destroys itself, and then to carry on existing. She becomes part of the universe, cradling the life spark that could begin the process over again – The Glow. She is a fantasy – saviour, conspiracy theory, universal outsider, and consciousness of humanity in one frail character, who should never be underestimated.
Alongside Zmitrowicz, a cleverly chosen cast deliver equally fine performances. Rakie Ayola plays the cruel Mrs Lyall and the kind Ellen, 130 years on, with equal command. Fisayo Akinade plays four characters with an anxious intensity that stands out. Tadgh Murphy is a medieval warrior (and briefly a caveman), who seems to have stepped out of a Walter Scott fantasy and is starting to wonder who he really is. Vicky Featherstone directs a very challenging script by sticking to a simple approach, which gives McDowall’s characters and their words space to breathe, and to convince us that we are seeing real people, whether from pre-history or otherwise. Space is provided literally by Marie Hensel’s cavernous corten steel slab set, like a chamber located outside time.
The sort of world-swapping, era-jumping epic structure of The Glow has been the aim of many playwrights, but notably few have come close to pulling it off. That McDowall does is perhaps the highest tribute to his skill. The Glow is the kind of work that, in ten years’ time, people will still be wondering at. It is reminiscent of Caryl Churchill, specifically her most recent work for the Royal Court, and of Annie Baker, one of the finest playwrights working today. Both they and McDowall freely combine the everyday with the inexplicable in a way that splits open our literal, conservative, over-documented times. It provides no answers, no plot-driven conclusions, and no compromises. Instead, McDowall spins ideas that won’t leave your head, plays with our fantasies of how we might be saved – half laughing at us and half sympathising with the human plight – and demonstrates that theatre can take us absolutely anywhere if it has the nerve to try. This is one of the most exciting plays to emerge so far, in this stalled decade.