“The Glow”, Royal Court Theatre

Neil Dowden in Sloane Square, London.

Alistair McDowall’s new play The Glow is a strange brew. The first half is a take on Victorian Gothic supernatural melodrama, while the second half morphs into a mythic time-travelling exploration of identity. Like his 2016 piece X at the Royal Court this plays with the tropes of sci-fi and horror without conforming to either genre, as well as experimenting with conceptions of time and storytelling that McDowall addressed in earlier plays like Pomona. As always there are bold leaps of imagination and disorientating shifts of focus that challenge audience expectations, but The Glow seems short on substance beneath its theatrical shimmer.

 

L to r: Ria Zmitrowicz, Fisayo Akinade and Rakie Ayola.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan
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The play starts in 1863. The self-described ‘spiritualist medium of some renown’ Mrs Lyall finds a mysterious young woman – both nameless and voiceless – in a windowless cell of a lunatic asylum, whom she claims as her new assistant. Mrs Lyall takes ‘The Woman’ home despite the hostility of her son Mason who has to give up his room to the stranger. Now called ‘Sadie’, she gradually starts to speak and assert herself. Mrs Lyall believes she is the perfect conduit for her own psychic ability to summon spirits of the dead but when threatened, Sadie uses her superhuman powers to terrifying effect.

Part II goes all over the place. First, the action switches to 1348 (the year of the Black Death) with ‘The Woman’ being forcibly taken by the knight Lord Haster to his king who wants to seize control of her magic powers. But after she saves his life he tries to protect her, naming her ‘Brooke’ (as in river). The play fast forwards to 1979 when Brooke visits an eccentric historian who is reading a book called ‘The Woman in Time’ and also to 1993 when she takes shelter in the house of a maternal retired nurse. There are also brief forays into the eras of the Stone Age, Ancient Rome, and the Second World War.

 

Ria Zmitrowicz as Brooke. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

 

McDowall is evidently tapping into folklore and mythology (including the Fisher King/Holy Grail) with this metaphysical Doctor Who about ‘The Woman’ who appears to be immortal as a symbolic force of nature and exudes an unearthly glow. She represents different meanings to people according to what age she appears in. But she is also a sharply drawn, complex individual who is on a quest to discover who she is. In the first half we wonder if her nightmarish visions stem from an unbalanced mind, but later it seems they are horrific memories of past lives when, for example, she is drowned or burned as a suspected witch – persecuted for being ‘other’. Sometimes she is able to deliberately switch periods, but at other times it happens involuntarily. She has the capacity to unleash extreme violence, but also to heal people’s physical and spiritual wounds. The Glow is a mind-bending work that stretches credulity.

Whether or not you willingly go on this journey – or feel you are being taken for a ride – Vicky Featherstone’s spooky, shadowy production is certainly atmospheric, and it also makes the most of the play’s off-kilter humour. Merle Hensel’s flexible design features angled walls that literally close in on the protagonists at one point. Tal Rosner’s immersive video projections take you under water or into a fire, and convey the awesome power of volcanic lava or the cold beauty of outer space in a kaleidoscope of images. Much of Act I takes place in semi-darkness (or even briefly total blackout) lit by candles, lanterns or flaming torches, with Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting effects making a big impact. And Nick Powell’s unsettling electronic composition and sound add to the eeriness.

The cast also impress. Ria Zmitrowicz embodies the various guises of ‘The Woman’ with great subtlety, suggesting the touching vulnerability of a traumatized victim as well as the fierce independence of a free spirit finding her own path in spite of social pressures. The other three actors play multiple roles, with Rakie Ayola as the domineering Mrs Lyall and caring nurse, Fisayo Akinade very funny as the petulant Mason and oddball researcher, and Tadhg Murphy as the Arthurian Haster who has some nice Pythonesque moments that help prevent this tall story from taking itself too seriously.