Reviews/Music/Perth Festival/Theatre

Life, loss and creativity

21 February 2020

Rosalind Appleby finds the contemplative music and stories of Tao of Glass take her – and the rest of the audience – somewhere deep.

Review: Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott, Tao of Glass ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 20 February 2020 ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·

Phelim McDermott craves our indulgence from the moment he arrives, entering through the audience as though he can’t find his seat. He rambles about Heath Ledger, ghosts, and the anticipation of a night at the theatre. His awkward, slow delivery disguises a carefully crafted introduction, which arrives eventually at the centrepoint of the production and the subject of McDermott’s most fervent devotion: Philip Glass.

We discover that McDermott, a Manchester-born actor and director, has been a fan of Glass’s music since he was a boy, and has directed three of his operas. He circuitously recounts the story of a production he and Glass wanted to make of In the Night Kitchen, a picture book for children by Maurice Sendak. But it never happened. Instead, Tao of Glass evolves, and we are privy to the creative process.

Within that larger story are several increasingly candid narratives, mirroring the three rings, or Tao-inspired Spirals of Consciousness, interpretative rings which hover above the stage (design by Fly Davis).

Underpinning McDermott’s autobiographical stories are 10 pieces by Philip Glass, performed by a folksy onstage band of clarinet, violin, piano and percussion. Glass’s idiosyncratic music, with its repetitive arpeggio figures that offer both forward propulsion and stasis, illuminates the concentric nature of McDermott’s narrative.

As McDermott floats from one story to another, incongruous themes recur: kitchens (utensils infiltrate the percussion collection), glass, Taoism, pianos, ghosts, dreams and rivers. Several puppeteers engineer the props, as well as a whimsical life-size boy puppet representing McDermott’s son, Glass and McDermott as a boy.

A music manuscript takes on a life of its own in ‘Tao of Glass’. Photo: Jess Wyld

But the predominant motif is the music manuscript, used with the theatrical wizardry that has become characteristic of McDermott and his company, Improbable Theatre. The manuscript erupts from the piano like a volcano, floats from the ceiling, becomes a shadow-puppet screen behind which Glass can be seen playing piano, is used to make a life-sized Chinese figure, and is scrunched and stuck on McDermott himself.

Glass’s music – until now a haunting yet joyful accompaniment – emerges in the coda as a central character. In a piece titled Coma, the music changes abruptly to a pulseless single melody played by Glass on the piano (a theatrical coup, but no spoilers here). It grows into a dream-like conversation as the clarinet and violin wander the stage. McDermott asks much from his audience (and the musicians) as the piece expands over what feels like 10 minutes or more.

In Tao of Glass, the form reveals as much as the content does. Gradually, the stories coalesce around themes of loss, the creative process and life, the path of which – as Glass’s music suggests – is perhaps not as linear as we suppose. The audience responds with quiet almost dreamy applause – we had gone deeper than we realised.

Tao of Glass is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 23 February 2020.

Pictured top: Phelim McDermott beneath the Spirals of Consciousness in ‘Tao of Glass’. Photo: Jess Wyld

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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