It’s perhaps telling that not even rampant monarchists believe in the concept of the inherent superiority of royalty anymore. Whether they believe that they serve as a counterbalance to government, or just because you like the parades, no-one is going around sincerely believing that what rattles around in the royal skull is anything but standard grey matter. The Glass Piano is set in the last last gasp of royal exceptionalism, but this brittle portrait of the blue blooded life, impressionistically sketched by playwright Alix Sobler doesn’t exactly leave you feeling nostalgic for the old days. Loosely based on the real life Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria, The Glass Piano, recreates the Bavarian royals as a kind of Gothic pantomime. Alexandra [Grace Molony, who is fantastic, throwing herself into the role with a baby-doll grace] suffers from a variant of the so called ‘glass delusion’ that affected scores of aristocrats at the time, convincing them they were made of glass and would shatter into a million pieces if they were struck. Alexandra believes she’s swallowed a glass piano and carefully edges through the cluttered minefield of the palace, terrified that the slightest slip might cause catastrophic internal damage.
Rather than a bustling hive of servants, the palace is portrayed as essentially empty. Apart from Alexandra, there is only her maid Galstina who seemingly is maintaining the entire palace single-handedly, and her father, King Ludwig I. The Queen has apparently turned feral and lives in the garden underbrush, but thanks to Ludwig’s pronouncements against divorce early in his reign he feels compelled to remain married to her rather than consummate his requited lust for Galstina. The King [a fantastic Timothy Walker] is a ridiculous figure, his fussiness played for laughs in a such a broad manner that most productions would founder. However the straitjacket of royal rules and prerogatives that he believes he must maintain world have actively deformed him into his ridiculous state. That he barely seems real is sketched as a self-inflicted tragedy that is almost a literal part of the burden of his kingship. In an era when the monarchy was no longer as absolute as it’s past forms, the forcible deprivations brought on by absurdly detailed etiquette are as much a binding stricture as poverty. This is an unhealthy household to put it mildly and it feels closer to the static pressure cooker of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle than Anastasia. Into this bizarre set-up appears a handsome young outsider named Lucien Bonaparte who proves a surprising hit with the family, considering his uncle once held Germany in his Corsican grip. A philologist by trade, his appearance in the family causes echoing reverberations.
The Glass Piano is slightly ephemeral, constantly introducing peripheral themes that drift beneath the bulk of the narratives like remora under a shark: The practical ‘modern’ update of monarchy as exemplified by Bonpartism vs the fairy-tale power structure of the ancien regime or Lucien’s interest in teaching a feral child to speak vs the Queen’s decent into savagery. These themes are never resolved, seemingly serving as metaphors for symbolism. Beyond this thematic haze however the core bones of The Glass Piano are strong and the universally excellent performances help propel it to deeply enjoyable heights. If it comes across as somewhat slight, it’s not much of a criticism.
The Glass Piano is playing until Friday May 24th at the Coronet Theatre, tickets can be booked here