Updated: May 28, 2021
Phelim McDermott, Philip Glass
MIF, Improbable and the Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
15 July 2019 – 20 July 2019; 2hr 30min
Manchester International Festival came up with a genuine coup for this one – a personal appearance, playing the piano in his own music, by composer Philip Glass.
Since the point of Phelim McDermott’s tale-telling (with his Improbable company’s puppeteer-actors, and Manchester Collective’s Rakhi Singh with Jack McNeill, Katherine Tinker and Chris Vatalaro as musicians) had seemed to be that plans to work with him and get him over here had hit snag after snag, this was quite a surprise.
It’s the kind of thing McDermott does very well, and he had prepared the ground with a charming mixture of reverence and humour about Glass’s music – which he tells us he had admired from childhood.
But he can also make a joke about the composer's renowned style. Describing the day the idea of Tao of Glass was finally conceived, he says: ‘I bored Philip Glass – the man who’s put more people to sleep in concert halls than anyone else!’
He says the original idea was going to be a version of Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen, "but that’s not happened’. He explains how Sendak died too soon, but not without some extended, hilarious impressions of the man.
But obviously something like that is happening, as we have the puppeteers of Improbable, the company whose ‘opera for babies’ was created for Manchester International Festival in 2017.
McDermott talks about Kintsugi, the Japanese art of ceramics with cracks ‘mended’ in gold... about dreams and dreaming… about the Tao and the wisdom of Lao Tzu… about his attempts to make an old garage into a studio and an expensive coffee table that got smashed in the process.
There’s a little boy doll, at times being McDermott’s son, Ridley, who comes out with some very deep ideas – including the fact that he likes Glass’s music ‘because it’s calm and dangerous at the same time’.
There’s a lot of paper covered with musical manuscript, which can be bundled to make lifelike figures, or thrown around the theatre space, or used with Sellotape like a giant spider’s web to entrap and enclose our narrator.
Then McDermott talks about meeting Glass and sharing thoughts on creativity and what fires it… and Arnold Mindell’s ideas about the consciousness of people in a comatose state.
Which resulted in a whole set of pieces of music being written – as we’ve been hearing, on and off, throughout the performance – and the crew even bring on an electronically-guided player-Steinway to render one of them.
Then, just as you think it’s a shame they couldn’t get Philip Glass in person, there he is, playing his own music on the piano. He has a rhythmically very complicated way of doing it, too – quite something to witness in the flesh.
What’s it about? It’s about one man and his journey of life… it’s about McDermott's adulation of a living composer whose music speaks eloquently to millions. It’s about how ideas in one genre spark ideas in another – and it’s about how to tell a tale in a theatre: brilliant, fascinating and enchanting.