In his youth, the actor and director Phelim McDermott would play the album Glassworks over and over again. “Philip Glass – on repeat!” says the now 55-year-old in his visionary new show Tao of Glass, sounding a little contrite that he might have driven his family mad.
Still, the obsession turned out to be lifelong. Tao of Glass, co-directed with Kirsty Housley and with a score by Glass himself, is – on one level – the story of McDermott’s long-held dream of creating a piece to his music. Aided by three puppeteers and a small band of musicians, he acts out his story not as a narrative, but as a collage of fragments. His initial idea, he tells us, had been to stage Maurice Sendak’s children’s book In the Night Kitchen, about a boy falling into a surreal underworld. But Sendak died before work could begin, and the project came to nothing. Yet what do we have here? A falling puppet boy, a model piano that ingeniously transforms into a toy theatre of kitchen cupboards and utensils, a fantasy flight inside a milk bottle, all to a specially composed score.
It’s just one scene of many that deftly layer story, sensation, make-believe and enigma. Some are funny, some matter-of-fact, some philosophical, and some simply magical: puppets fleetingly formed by tissue paper, a snow of sheet music, McDermott lying comatose beside an unplayed piano as the stage rotates like a turning world.
In one key section, McDermott explains Arny Mindell’s theory of three levels of existence – consensus reality, dreamland, essence – and the piece as a whole, meandering in subject from coffee tables to Lao Tzu to comas, seems to traverse these very layers, while three concentric rings that circle the stage rise and fall above it. In another, he muses on the Japanese art of kintsugi: the mending of broken pottery with seams of gold, to make what is broken more beautiful.
Again, you sense this as both a particular story and a guiding idea. Tao of Glass is itself the beautiful joining of fragmented scenes.
The gold that joins them is music. It’s not only that Glass’s music is the seam running through the scenes, but also that the staging itself is a kind of Glassian music: a fluctuating field of motifs, echoes, transfigurations and returns, layers of mood, texture and tone, gentle intimations of the ineffable and the sublime. Every so often your eyes will fill with tears, for there is only so much that the human heart can hold within it.
Footage of rehearsals from Tao of Glass: