All My Sons at the Old Vic Theatre review *****

All My Sons

Old Vic Theatre, 10th May 2019

Take Arthur Miller’s most “Greek” and, probably, most moralising play. Wheel in a couple of Hollywood heavyweights (Bill Pullman and Sally Field, Neve before seen on a UK stage). Add a couple of high recognition and talented Brit actors (Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan). And a supporting cast at the top of its game (Sule Rimi, Gunnar Cauthery, Kayla Meike, Bessie Carter and Oliver Johnstone). Design an entirely naturalistic, picket fenced, clapboard house set (Max Jones) draft an A team for lighting (Richard Howell), sound (Carolyn Downing) and video (Duncan McLean). Put Headlong chief Jeremy Herrin in charge, a man with a proven record of delivering serious, yet still entertaining, popular theatre (This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, The Never, Junkyard and Wolf Hall/Brin up the Bodies). Kick off proceedings at a gentle canter but slowly and surely racket up the tension as the disclosures tumble out and the velocity of the dialogue accelerates. Don’t hold anything back at the end. Mr Miller certainly didn’t.

No surprise then that the Old Vic has a hit on its hands playing to packed houses with no need for the occasional discounting that has dogged a few, very good in my opinion, productions in the last couple of years (notably Fanny and Alexander). If you are to believe the Blonde Bombshells, BUD, KCK and the SO, and you should, this is well deserved. After a near miss with Three Sisters I have the team back in the palm of my booking blind hand.

So what is about the play and production that works so well? The last time I saw it, at the Rose Theatre in 2016, director Michael Rudman took a similar unfussy approach to proceedings, with a near identical set and some strong performances from Penny Downie as Kate Keller, Alex Waldmann as son Chris Keller and David Horovitch as Joe Keller, the “common man” and flawed “hero” of Miller’s tragedy. But it never really caught fire as here.

This is largely down to the quartet of excellent performances at the heart of the play. Though we have had a couple of contrarian opinions elsewhere in the viewing circle that mostly centre on the casting of Bill Pullman as Joe, which I can acknowledge but not agree with.

Bill Pullman started out as a stage actor but, as far as I can see, got sidetracked, as one might, by the big bucks of Hollywood. It is fair to say not everything he has laid down on celluloid has been of the highest quality though, also fair to say, I don’t know most of his films. He does have a very particular style of delivery though which, for me, works to great effect here. The pitch of his performance is pretty much unchanged throughout, but its amplitude is constantly changing. Alternately sympathetic, matey, defensive, aggressive, wheedling underneath the homespun, bumbling exterior, this is a man who who knows one day his secret will break him but continues to deny it even to himself, until right at the end. Sally Field as Kate, is similarly covering up, and therefore refuses to accept that her pilot son Larry died in the war, casting a protective cordon around her family. When she finally “finds out” the truth her impassiveness speaks volumes. In my pretty limited experience the stars of the American big screen generally hold back on stage, (a notable exception being Christian Slater in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross). That’s close-ups for you. It can seen underpowered, (and I wouldn’t want to see this production from up in the gods). Jeremy Herrin tough, with his master of pace, finds a way to turn this to advantage, “naturalising” the exposition of the first act and making the sh*t-hit-fan third act even more devastating

It was a joy to see Jenna Coleman as Ann Deever take to the stage after her phenomenally successful TV career. Her exchanges with Sally Field, as she and Chris seek her approval, are extremely affecting. For me though, Colin Morgan as Chris was the star of the show. Racked with survivor guilt from his brother’s death, and buried anger from his own war experiences, and then seeing his chance of happiness through a life with Ann turn to ashes as his father’s sins, (which deep down I think he knows), are revealed. Mr Morgan, as in Translations at the NT, (though this is a very different role even if he again stands at the centre of the plot), is dynamic and enthralling.

All My Sons first appeared in 1947. AM’s first efforts attracted critical acclaim but his previous Broadway opening in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck, was a flop closing after just 4 performances. Thank goodness he didn’t give up. All My Sons doesn’t quite scale the heights of its successors, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, but, as the standing ovation here demonstrated, (mind you that is par for the course now and no bad thing – these creatives deserve our gratitude), it delivers a whacking great emotional punch to the gut. Maybe not quite as much food for thought or structural elegance as those successors, and there are a few near McGuffins, (that letter), in the plot, but this is what drama is all about. You might occasionally rankle at the way AM controls the flow of information, and elevates dialogue over action, but you’ll still be hanging on every word as you catch up with what the various characters know, don’t know and learn about the central hubris. There’s also the old Miller criticism chestnut of veiled misogyny given that Ann acts primarily as the catalyst of the emerging truth and Kate is seen as somehow manipulating those around here. You might also, as a couple of our crew did, question the end, but, hey, that’s catharsis folks.

Well I didn’t know this. AMS is actually based on a true story which AM’s mother-in-law pointed out about an Ohio based aeronautical company that conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines for military use, eventually leading to a congressional investigation. I can see why this would have piqued AM’s interest. It could accommodate his overarching concern, the corruption of the American Dream, but here his critique of capitalist individualism riding roughshod over socialist collectivism, found an unambiguous moral centre in one family’s story. Whatever one’s political persuasion, putting profit above the safety of young men fighting for their country and for freedom is surely a no-no, but then again sending them to war in the first place shows a remarkable lack of collective intelligence on the part of the human race. Joe made the execrable decision, (or absence of decision), but did he feel the pressure from the military and the ideal of family? Where AM is really smart though is in taking inspiration not just from the Greeks, (All My Sons even strictly obeys the unities of time, place and action), but also from Ibsen, specifically The Wild Duck, where Hakon Werle’s wealth and influence is built on a crime that his former business partner, Old Ekdal, took the rap for.

There is also a pop at the veracity of the legal justice, (both Ann and brother George (Oliver Johnstone) believe their father is guilty and Joe innocent because the investigation said so), the frustrations, resentments and contradictions of “normal” small town America families, the Bayliss’ and the Lubeys,( though at least they don’t have the back story of the Kellers and the Deevers), are exposed, as are class and education. In the end though the story of a man, (or woman), losing, (or finding), their honour has brought us together for thousands of years (as all you GoT fans know). Hard to imagine anything better.

Of course all that was before we went down the road a week later to see The Death of a Salesman. Crikey.

The Crucible at the Yard Theatre review ****

The Crucible

The Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick, 29th April 2019

The latest instalment in the Tourist’s engagement with this year’s unofficial Arthur Miller season was director Jay Miller’s often insightful, occasionally daft take on The Crucible which for me, and I know this is not the aesthete’s choice, probably just about trumps Death of a Salesman as Arthur Miller’s greatest play.

BTW it looks like, as any fool might have guessed, that the Young Vic and Marianne Elliott, and the stunning cast, have played a blinder with the now-opened revival of Death of a Salesman. This was predictably likely to be one of the best plays in London this year. And so it seems it is.

BTW again. I have been talking to some ypung people. Or rather I have been talking at some young people. At MS and MSC’s wedding amongst other ocassions so technically they had no means of escape. They, like MS and BD, hold Arthur Miller in low regard. I have a feeling that English Lit teachers may have been giving the poor chap a hard time. I get that there is some evidence in his life to support this, and revealed most explicitly in After The Fall, to pin him as an arrogant misogynist, who abandoned his disabled son, trashed the reputation of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, stuck with impossibly idealistic political positions secure in his ivory tower and repeated himself to diminishing effect in terms of issues and form in his later plays. But, for me, his greatest plays are about as good as drama gets, and that is what matters.

And these plays can still thrive even when starved of creative sympathy. Especially The Crucible. As some sage observes in the Time Out review for this very production The Crucible is “built like a brick shithouse”. Correct. This apparently is the first time that The Yard Theatre has produced a classic play. It has played host to some others’ interpretations, notably Rash Dash’s wham-bam take on Three Sisters. But now Jay Miller and his young cast have given his namesake the shoestring, experimental once-over. Now the Yard, for the uninitiated, is exactly how a privileged, well-off, ageing, ex-City, liberal, insulated, South West Londoner imagines a theatre in edgy East London should look like. Scruffy space, ropey bogs, wooden benches now helpfully rendered fit for purpose with plastic seats. On a site by a canal, in an old industrial estate, next to the ginger line, two brew pubs on the site, (nice pizza courtesy of CRATE), creative spaces, studios, artisanal food-makers, cheek by jowl with old school light industry and breakers yards’. And graffiti. Lots of graffiti. Oh and beards. Lots of beards.

Love it. The Tourist is now looking for ways to get some of his chums to make the trek there. For even with the new material it presents this theatre is making a mark. I like the look of the upcoming Armadillo and its cast and hope that something beyond that might tempt his picky punters. The Yard is now getting Arts Council funding so expect it, like the Arcola, to go from strength to strength.

Probably should have pushed those punters a bit harder on this Crucible. they would have been intrigued. There are a few quirks – the TV screen announcing characters and other visual distractions sat on a chair, the spooky, masked witches that pop up in the later scenes, some extravagant Massachusetts c. 1692 accents, European regie-theater use of microphones, a spot of karaoke – that might bemuse rather than illuminate. But there are other innovations that manifestly do work. The cast kicking off on name-tagged chairs describing characters and context, and even stage directions and Miller’s own footnotes (A not J though that might have worked too); then slowly donning “period” dress (designed by Oliver Cronk) and taking on those accents; the doubling and truly gender blind casting; some dramatic lighting (Jess Bernberg) and ensemble effects; Jonah Brody’s ambient score and Josh Anio Grigg’s killer sound design. Brechtian and disorientating for sure but ramping up the strangeness of the events here and counterpointing the McCarthyite parable.

Since The Crucible is actually a belter of a story independent of its meaning then all this collectively serves to make us more engaged in what is happening as the hysteria in this ramshackle Salem boils over and the epic sacrifices by the Proctors are made. For surely The Crucible is as epic as anything Brecht or Euripides ever conjured up despite its superficially “historical” setting. Hence the link back to those opening quotes from Arthur M highlighting the historical inaccuracies. This is where Jay Miller’s mad genius pays dividends across the full 3 hours he commits to the production.

Young Mr Miller is plainly a clever fellow. For not only has smartly subverted the mythic quality of the play, whilst still retaining its dramatic power, (though like I say I have never actually see a bad production of The Crucible), and emotional connection, (I don’t actually well up when JP hangs on to his name but …..), but he has also feminised A Miller’s muscular language, exaggerated in The Crucible by the C17 New England idiom, with his casting of Caoilfhionn Dunne as John Proctor and Sophie Duval as Giles Corey (as well as Abigail Williams’s chief sidekick Mercy Lewis). Now as it happens these two are the best of the very talented bunch on show. I have seen Ms Dunne before, most recently in Mike Bartlett’s Wild, in The Nest at the Young Vic, on my allotted night at the Gate’s Dear Elizabeth and, most memorably at that same theatre in Suzy Storck, (where Cecile Tremolieres was, as she is here, the innovative designer). This was proof of just how much emotion she can wring from a character and so it proved again with her John Proctor, dim at first, but full beam by the time we get to the confession. Sophie Duval showed us intense pathos when Giles Corey loses his book reading wife to the madness but also plenty of laughs with Corey’s pithy comments about the venal motives of those egging on the teenage accusers.

It is usual to have sympathy for the scorned Abigail Williams. Not much though in Nina Cassells’s take where she has no discernible remorse for the carnage she unleashes. The scene when she meets Proctor, who begs her to recant, is especially chilling. The argument between, in this case, the two women, contrasts with the tetchy and tense arguments between JP and his (good)wife, played by Emma D’Arcy, in the Proctor house and then later the desperate exchange as JP wills her to lie on his behalf. I didn’t see Ms D’Arcy in Mrs Dalloway at the Arcola, (couldn’t find a date that worked for the willing SO), but it seems we missed a trick there. I am reminded that she mastered a tricky role in the unfairly maligned, if scattergun, Against at the Almeida as a complex student. The female side of the casting is completed by Sorcha Groundsell as the alternately, bolshie, brave and intimidated Mary Warren, (the weakest of A Miller’s Crucible characters IMHO). (I gather she has signed up for Netflix series The innocents – good on her). And a spirited (literally) Lucy Vandi as Tituba and the irksome Mr and Mrs Nurse.

As for the gents, Syrus Lowe, fresh from The Inheritance, offers a petulant, self aggrandising Reverend Parris, the willing executioner, as well as the officious Willard and Cheever, Jack Holden manages to avoid the trap of letting Reverend Hale descend into melodramatic self-pity as his faith is broken, and Jacob James Beswick stands out as “the Judges” Hathorne and Danforth, who care more about order and power than true justice.

The doubling shows us that there is good and bad in all of us, though you have to hope yours isn’t going to be exposed by witchcraft trials, and that we are all capable of overlooking or conniving in state sanctioned persecution. The Crucible was written as allegory prompted by his mate Elia Kazan’s naming of 8 members of the Group Theatre to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Following the opening of The Crucible Miller also went before the Committee in 1957, had his passport confiscated, was held in contempt and sentenced to a fine and imprisonment. The “conviction” was overturned the following year but hardened Miller’s political views. He made up with Kazan years later. (As it happens Miller managed to get his work banned in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s as well, proving he was doing something right). Whilst, as I have said, the message of The Crucible and its dramatic power can stand all sorts of treatment, there is no doubt that Jay Miller’s radical take, at its best, offers an exciting and dislocating perspective on the play. A Miller took liberties with the “true” story of the Salem witch-hunts. Jay Miller is simply returning the favour.

The Crucible, like most of A Miller’s greatest plays, is ripped straight from the play book of Sophocles. John Proctor is the archetype tragic hero whose peripeteia (reversal of fortune) is brought on by his hamartia (fatal flaw) which leads him to anagnorisis (self discovery). All the very best plays, the ones that jump out, thump us in chest and head and leave us exhilarated, follow the Greek rules moreorless closely. Well maybe I exaggerate a bit. Though the following, including some of the Greek originals, suggests I might just be right. These plainly should be on everyone’s theatrical bucket list.

  • The Oresteia – Aeschylus
  • Oedipus the King – Sophocles
  • Medea – Euripides – (I know – it broke the rules)
  • Tamburlaine the Great – Marlowe – (see if you don’t end up quite liking the fella)
  • Hamlet – Shakespeare
  • Phedre – Racine
  • Woyzeck – Georg Buchner
  • The Master Builder – Ibsen
  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Eugene O’Neill – (four for the price of one)
  • All My Sons – Arthur Miller – (or Death of a Salesman or A View From The Bridge)
  • The Goat, or Who is Sylvia – Edward Albee
  • The Ferryman – Jez Butterworth – (work with me on this)

See what I mean.

Orestes at Silk Street Theatre review ***

Orestes

Guildhall School, Silk Street Theatre, 27th March 2019

Even the most casual reader of this blog will observe that the Tourist spends an inordinate amount of time in a theatre. A recipe for pity or jealousy depending on your point of view. Despite this satisfying his urge to hoover up the, er, classics of Classical Greek drama is proving surprisingly elusive. There isn’t as much of it about as you might expect. I appreciate that this might be the Firstest of First World Problems but it has, nonetheless, come as a surprise. So first sniff of a Sophoclean, Euripidean or Aeschylean (??) opportunity and the Tourist is straight in. As here. Also taking advantage again of the chance to see tomorrow’s acting and creative talent today, this time from the Guildhall School.

Orestes was written by Euripides and first performed in 408 BCE and tells the story of young Orestes after he has killed his Mummy. It follows on from the events catalogued in Electra, the play about his sister, dramatised by both Euripides and Sophocles, and in between The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides by Aeschylus, the latter two plays in his trilogy The Oresteia. In fact the well educated amongst you will be aware that young Orestes is perhaps the central character in this, to say the least, dysfunctional family tale. He crops up in something like a quarter of the extant plays by the three Greek tragedians.

He kills Mum Clytemnestra to avenge the death of Daddy Agamemnon by said Mummy. Mummy’s justification being that Agamemnon had, before setting off to bash the Trojans because they pinched his brother Menelaus’s wife Helen, (she of the ships), killed little daughter Iphigenia, Orestes’s Sis, to secure some favourable wind. Not a relieving flatulence you understand, but wind to set the fleet off to Troy. Now some would also have it that naughty Clytemnestra actually recruited lover Aegisthus, (who had a claim to the throne of Mycenae albeit via an incestuous route), to kill Hubby. So Orestes, taking no chances, bashed him in as well.

And you thought GoT was complicated. Next Christmas, when it’s all kicking off, cheer yourself up by thinking at least it isn’t as bad as this, the Atreus family curse. In fact it all started with Tantalus, oen of Zeus’s sons, who, to get back at his Dad and the other gods, boiled up his son for them to feast on after they had banished him, Tantalus that is, for having nicked some ambrosia. (Who would have thought they liked rice pudding so much). Tantalus goes to hell, the son, Pelops, is revived but, after some chariot race fixing skullduggery and general cursing, Pelops’s boys Atreus and Thyestes then fall out. Affairs, and some more pie based cannibalism, mean that the next generation, the generation described above, inherits the curse.

And so to this play. Electra opens up with a quick “and previously in the House of Atreus” synopsis whilst a weary Orestes kips next door. Auntie Helen swans in wanting to make an offering at Clytemnestra’s grave, the chorus of Argive women pitch up and Orestes awakes, tormented by Furies. Rough night. Uncle Menelaus and his father in law, so Orestes’s Grandad, Tyndareus, arrive, and Orestes makes his pitch for mercy to then, requesting an opportunity to talk to the Argive men. Cue discussion of the tensions between divine justice and natural law. Menelaus takes a stern line though. After all the Greek people have just about reached the end of their tether what with going to war for years just to get his missus Helen back and are in no mood to listen to any appeals for clemency.

Orestes, with his mate Pylades and Electra, then go direct to the assembly but this fails to forestall the death penalty for Brother and Sister, so the trio hatch a further play involving, you guessed it, more murder, this time of Helen and her daughter Hermione. Helen vanishes, but the trio capture Hermione, as well a slave who saves his own skin with some rousing argument. Menelaus catches the conspirators in the act ……

….. and then, ta-dah, deus ex machina in the form of the god Apollo who sets things to rights by explaining that Helen is in the stars (whaaaaaat), Menalaus must go back to Sparta, Orestes to Athens where the court will acquit him, after which he must marry Hermione, oh, and Electra will marry Pylades. Job done. Humans can go away in peace. Apollo can go back to arching, averting evil and all round being beautiful. As usual with Euripides, the gods don’t come across as the sharpest tools in the toolbox, their relationship with the humans is messy, the nature of justice is questioned and war is, as sagely observed by Boy George, stupid.

The director here Charlotte Gwinner, who has had spells at Sheffield Theatres, Liverpool Everyman and the Bush, opted for the prose translation by one Kenneth McLeish. Now as I am new to this game so have no idea how one translation differs from another, though I can imagine there are some high faultin’ verse options, but there is no messing about here. On with the action and as idiomatic as you like. Mind you I see Mr McLeish translated the complete Greek drama, all 47 plays, as well French farces, Ibsen and much, much else. Clever fellow.

Added to this was an impressive design concept courtesy of Simon Daw and equally uninhibited sound from Elizabeth Purcell and lighting from Guildhall student Christopher Harmon. I see young Harmon wants to make a career of this. On this evidence he will. The split level set showcases a dark, colonnaded underbelly, think vandalised car park/temple underneath a promenade which opens up at the end to reveal …. an Arcadian Olympus. Against this a majority of the final year acting students are able too strut their collective stuff. One or two were familiar from the four/five hander Detroit earlier in the season. I hate singling anyone out but I was very impressed by Uri Levy’s articulate and full throated, delirious but not mad, Orestes and, especially the Electra of Mirren Mack. And the members of the Chorus, complete with school uniform, were also impressive complete with choreography and howls.

I guess I could imagine an interpretation that plumbed the rhetoric more effectively and, as always with these productions, some of the actors are asked to play characters well beyond their years, which they gamely do, but as an astute, compact (90 minute) intro to the play my profound thanks to the Guildhall School. More please.