BWW Review: TAO OF GLASS at Perth Festival
I'm not sure where to begin with Phelim McDermott and Philip Glass's rhapsodic, hypnotic ode to creativity and collaboration,Tao of Glass, as part of Perth Festival. As a theatre reviewer, my task is to look at a performance with objectivity while also remaining open to its emotional intentions, which means that, of necessity, a bit of subjectivity makes its way into my summary. Since watching Tao of Glass, I find my thoughts and impressions of it making a circle loop around my brain, as if they too were revolving on the platform that turns counter-clockwise in the centre of the show's set.
Tao of Glass is deeply personal in very unexpected ways. While all theatre is essentially personal, McDermott coaxes his audience (or attempts to, in any case) into a psycho-spiritual space to sit alongside him while he meditates on the deepest sources of creativity through Glass's music. McDermott tells a series of anecdotes from his life, starting with his first formative experiences inside the theatre and its ghosts; he weaves in a heartwarming episode about a show he never got to see as a child (Billy's Wonderful Kettle), and how his imagination turned it into the best show, to which no other show he was ever to make could compare.
This then relates to a show he never got to make: a collaboration with Glass and children's author Maurice Sendak to bring his book, The Night Kitchen, to life on stage. Sendak died before the project got off the ground, but here, McDermott creates 'the show he never got to make' in brief with the help of a trio of puppeteers (David Emmings, Janet Etuk, and Rachel Leonard) and a small, wonderful music ensemble (Jack McNeill on clarinet, Rakhi Singh on violin, Katherine Tinker on piano, Chris Vatalaro on percussion) playing Glass's compositions live on stage. There are moments of real, compelling beauty in the retelling of these stories from McDermott's life.
McDermott then introduces the concepts of Taoism, the i Ching, kintsugi, and floatation tanks, and uses the set's suspended concentric light rings (Fly Davis, designer, Colin Grenfell, lighting designer) to demonstrate a theory about three levels of consciousness: consensus reality, dream state, and the deepest level where the Tao and something called Deep Democracy live. This philosophical exegesis, set to Glass's score, has an hypnotic effect (possibly even soporific, depending on what you had for dinner prior to sitting down for some theatre), which McDermott makes light of. He talks about bringing these ideas to Glass in a workshop, and after talking through them, found Glass dozing off - Glass, who had put thousands of people to sleep in concert halls all over the world with his music.
The second half of the show eventually makes its way again to this hypnotic state, as McDermott effectively draws us into a group meditation when he reenacts a portion of their collaborative process in which McDermott "pretends to be in a coma" and Glass tries "to reach him" through improvised music. McDermott lies down on the revolving floor next to a Steinway as it rotates slowly and Glass's composition unfolds. The 'consensus reality' part of my mind said to me at that moment, "this audience has paid money to watch a man lie on the stage doing nothing for 10 minutes." And then my mind drifted to Marina Abramovic, and her performance The Artist is Present, and even LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner's #IAMSORRY, and how these performances ask the audience to simply sit and be present with the artist.
And then to finish up, McDermott puts his very first Glass album, Glassworks, onto a portable record player in the middle of the stage, once again reclines, and lets the music speak for itself. McDermott wants us to drift with him along Glass's river of sound, showing us how it has flowed through his life - an undercurrent underscore of the many losses and triumphs of his creative life. How impressive is it that McDermott made his childhood dreams a reality, and even more so, in collaboration with one of his teenage idols? It's quite a remarkable tale, and though its telling is fractured just like the broken pottery of katsugi, the golden glue of Glass's music joins everything together to make something truly unique which celebrates flaws, rather than chases perfection.
Tao of Glass ran from 19 - 23 February 2020 at Heath Ledger Theatre as part of Perth Festival.