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.

Imperium at the Gielgud Theatre review ****

cicero

Imperium I Conspirator and Imperium II Dictator

Gielgud Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, 18th July and 25th August 2018

I don’t read much. Don’t have the patience or the imagination. Much easier to get my kicks from the theatre, or from film, where other people can do all the hard work. Also suspect years of reading, writing and talking, to no great effect, in an office, for the greater good of neo-liberal capitalism, has shredded what grey matter I once had. Not like the SO. A voracious reader.

All of which means I have no view on the novelist Robert Harris. Never read anything he has written. Always had him down as a writer of pot-boiling political thrillers. Not even seen any of the film adaptions. On the strength of this majestic entertainment, an adaption of Mr Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero adapted by Mike Poulton, I think I might have missed a trick. It looks like Mr Harris’s books would be right up my street and he sounds like a terribly good bloke as well.

So next holiday reading now nailed down what about this RSC blockbuster? Apparently Mike Poulton had to be fairly judicious with what he took from the book, focussing on certain episodes in the maturity of the great orator’s life, but what he has conjured up, together with RSC AD Gregory Doran, is a fantastic slice of theatre. OK so there are times, as in some of Shakespeare’s weaker sections in the history plays, where the shuffling of characters on and off the stage, and the expository repeats, become a bit cumbersome, but generally Mr Poulton and Mr Doran have, through a variety of devices, ensured that, throughout the 7 hours or so of the two plays, we know exactly who is doing what to whom and, mostly, why. We also get an insight into the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers, (or at least one of the greatest thinkers in a Western culture still in thrall to the Classical), and some universal lessons about the nature of politics and representation, and the symbiosis of word and deed in history, or at least the history of “great men”.

The plays also succeeds thanks to the casting of the two main protagonists. Richard McCabe is a thoroughly convincing Cicero, principled, courageous, sardonic, egocentric. Joseph Kloska as his secretary and our narrator Tiro, is equally impressive even if he has less to work with. There is more than a touch of the buddy movie about their central relationship. The audience is frequently dragged in to proceedings whether as the imagined Senate that Cicero and others address, the mob, or, breaking the wall, as conspirators in the events on stage. Not formally innovative but very satisfying in this kind of “one thing after another” history play. The political canvas, as we pass through Cicero’s election as Consul, his machinations with Catiline, Clodius, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and, finally, Octavian (Augustus), all to protect the values of the Republic and, take note, the rule of law, is contrasted with the domestic, Cicero’s dysfunctional relationships with wife, family and proteges. If you know your Roman history and/or your Shakespeare, this is a delight. Even if you don’t the touch is so light that it is a breeze to follow.

The staging, against the steps leading up to a pair of giant. mosaic eyes, in Anthony Ward’s set, is as dramatic as it needs to be when serious stuff is playing out, but there is a thread of humour, largely milked by the two leads which prevents it turning into a slog. Sometimes the laughs, and the delivery, edges a little bit towards the Up Pompeii, but this is a good thing in my book, and much better than the alternative of ponderous epic. Composer Paul Englishby and sound designer Claire Windsor have very adroitly managed to plot a way through this tonal warp and weft, not easy to sustain over this length of time. The same is true for Mark Henderson’s lighting composition. Indeed the entire creative crew should be lauded for their studied concentration. It would be easy to let things slide, or for the pace to ease up, when you have this much to show, but, if at any point my concentration wavered, it was my fault not theirs.

With this size of undertaking, 44 named parts and more walk-ons and crowd scenes beyond that, and spanning four decades, most of the cast were doubled up across the two plays. In addition to Cicero and Tiro, Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s put upon wife Terentia, Jade Croot as his unfortunate daughter Tullia and Paul Kemp as his bluff brother Quintus all stuck to one role, along with Peter de Jersey imperious, (no other adjective will do), Julius Caesar. When he came on all fake chummy to Cicero he captured exactly the air of a big man who knows he can’t be refused. Oliver Johnstone (after young Rufus in Part I) played Octavian with an air of even greater menace as he seized the opportunity given to him by his adoptive father Caesar Mk I. Joe Dixon seemed to relish the roles of, first, entitled aristo Catiline and then, a boozed up Mark Antony, as did Eloise Secker as the scheming Clodia and then Fulvia. This is, unfortunately, not a story with much to offer in the way of female roles, so it was a bit disconcerting, and unusual, to see so many white men on show. Still that was Rome, except that it wasn’t really.

Turning Cicero’s life, through the device of a biography written by his (originally) slave, mediated through millenia of scholarship, a writer of gripping fiction, and then on to the stage, was bound to throw up all sorts of questions about how we interpret the Ancients and how the “principles” they established still inform the world today, politics, democracy and drama, most prominently. Layer that into a fast moving biography, contemporary resonance, (for once not shoehorned in), and a history lesson, and you can see why the team here was pretty much on the case as soon as the ink had dried on the final part of Robert Harris’s trilogy, also entitled Dictator. History does not repeat itself, nor is there some deterministic arc to human progress, but two-bit, populistic tosspot geezers (always men) are ten a penny. Easy to spot, less easy to stop.

For all of you who get sniffy about the RSC and its contribution to the cultural fabric of this country, and, the world, I respectfully suggest you zip it. Here’s a great story, thrillingly told, neither too high or too low brow. Of course, as usual, by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing it and writing about it, it’s pretty much all over but I would hope this adaptation has an afterlife and I for one would love to see more “history” plays delivered in such confident, ambitious style. Like I say, if like me, you just don’t have the attention span to read a book or devote days to a box-set, then this is the thing for you. Proof positive that anyone who thinks theatre is a dreadful, long drawn out bore hasn’t tried and basically doesn’t know what they are talking about.