Tag Archives: Arthur Miller

"Death of a Salesman" at the Piccadilly Theatre

Successful revivals – and this is one of the best – tend to present a classic text with reverence or remodel it for the current day. Trying to do both – respecting and reinventing – usually pleases nobody. But just such a combination has been achieved by co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell with Arthur Miller’s classic story of Willy Loman’s demise. It’s like no production of the show before, but presents Miller’s concerns for the working man with utmost conviction. The result is marvellous. 

Casting the Loman family as African American is the most obvious difference. The consequences are profound, rippling through the show, continually adding layers to Miller’s text. Take Willy’s subservience to his much younger boss – more painful than ever. Highlighting the play’s concern with Willy’s breakdown is novel, too: since Miller’s day appreciation of mental health, including dementia, and how distressing it can be for victims, has grown. Flashback scenes, with bold lighting design from Aideen Malone, add a distressing air that increases sympathy for Willy. The production takes modern sensibilities into account and fills the play with new questions and tensions.

Meanwhile Miller’s political concerns are amplified. Rather than connect Willy to buzzwords (“the squeezed middle” or the “precariat”), ideas about the dignity of work, perhaps old fashioned, are explored as the writer intended. Likewise, the aspirations that obsess Willie, maybe even drive him mad, are given space. A period atmosphere is aided by Femi Temowo’s compositions and musical direction – I don’t think Miller’s ever been this cool. The brilliant design, by Anna Fleischle, makes the family home, just about to be purchased, a frame: a perfect reflection of how transparent these lives become to us.

Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell Pierce in 'Death of a Salesman'
Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell Pierce

As if all this weren’t enough, this production also boasts some of the most fantastic performances you could witness. The whole cast is impeccable, even the smaller roles who add to the music in the show. Victoria Hamilton-Barrit and Matthew Seadon-Young excel, despite their characters coming close to being devices. The Loman brothers are vividly depicted by Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Natey Jones with performances that complement each other – as they should. The tension for one bubbles under while the other’s anger proves explosive.

Making a West End debut that will surely be remembered for a long time, Wendell Pierce takes the lead role with astonishing skill. Willy is not an appealing character, rather a tin-pot tyrant who’s easy to condemn. But Pierce makes him a man you can warm to – and a surprisingly diffident person that you feel for. Adding a purity of intention, focusing on his sons, he becomes a noble character whose end is truly tragic. 

As his wife Linda, Sharon D Clarke recognises the role as the lynchpin of the play. Often quite literally centre stage, Clarke has the presence to make the role major. For Linda is also the play’s moral compass and Clarke gives a performance of dignified intensity that becomes heart-breaking. Finally, the chemistry between the two leads is something really special – adding an urgency to the drama and, again, an emotional impact that makes this the most moving Miller I’ve ever seen.

Until 4 January 2020

www.atgtickets.com

Photos by Brinkhoff & Mogenburg

“The American Clock” at the Old Vic

Of the current and forthcoming productions of Arthur Miller plays in London, this piece from 1980 may count as the oddest and perhaps the most personal. The play gives an outline of The Great Depression, based on the work of oral historian Studs Terkel. And with much of the action focusing on a young man, similar in age and ambition to Miller in the early 1930s – whose family loses its money just as his did – it’s hard not to see it as an autobiographical fragment. Unfortunately, as a trip into the past it’s too potted. And as analysis of events it’s too pedestrian. That American optimism is relentless is rammed home, but doing so brings monotony. And while the idea of an American political left that challenges corporations might be intriguing, it has clearly been consigned to history. It all makes for a text that’s both slim and slow.

Clare Burt, Golda Rosheuvel and Amber Aga

With an episodic structure and presentation that includes song and dance An American Clock still intrigues and the work of director Rachel Chavkin is strong. Making the lack of plot a virtue, the central family is played in triplicate: there are three sets of once wealthy mothers and struggling fathers, while a trio of sons grow up and start careers. It’s a neat way of showing the universalism of the economic disaster and is staged superbly – the device works to make the large ensemble cast really stand out. Clare Burt and Amber Aga both excel as the mother Rose while Golda Rosheuvel becomes the star by also punctuating scenes with a powerful singing voice. James Garnon has most time in the role of the father, and leaves the biggest impression, while three youngsters performing as the son Lee – Fred Haig, Jyuddah Jaymes and Taheen Modak – all impress. Worried about losing track? Thankfully, Clarke Peters is on board as the show’s narrator to make everything smooth. Few actors could make a story this predictable still entertaining and Peters is, as ever, superb.

Ewan Wardrop

Miller renamed the play a Vaudeville piece after its flop on Broadway. Chavkin embraces this by ensuring her production has variety, fun and also rhythm. There are songs throughout and the choreography from Ann Yee is excellent, not least in taking into account that the cast are not dancers. It’s a good way to inject much needed energy; Ewan Wardrop’s tap-dancing CEO proves a real highlight. The music makes points – a manic lust for money and then panic with the Stock Market crash – while complementing the sketch-like quality of the play itself. With the motif of marathon dancing competitions that runs throughout the play, Chavkin’s vision is clear, akin to a live Reginald Marsh painting, but the scenes themselves amount to little, feeling anecdotal or didactic. It’s Chavkin’s skill to weave them together so skilfully – and it’s easy to see why she is one to watch. Still, this play isn’t one to give time to.

Until 30 March 2019

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Incident at Vichy” at the Finborough Theatre

There is a dichotomy within Arthur Miller’s 1964 play, in which we meet ten men captured for questioning by German forces in Occupied France. A cool examination of evil combines with the emotional impact of events. Allying both aspects shows director Phil Willmott’s experience and skill.

Miller observed Nazi war crimes as a journalist and, like Hannah Arendt, adopted an intellectual rigour to understand the complexity of events. The text overflows with ideas, to its detriment – issues of class, race and alterity arrive too thick and too fast. Designer Georgia de Grey’s cold white box of a set makes the perfect environment for this clinical questioning. Two members of the strong cast convey the arguments, which lie heavily on the page, superbly: Brendan O’Rourke as a politicised working man and Gethin Alderman as a psychiatrist hailing from Vienna. Bright lights are appropriate for such an interrogation but also show the growing tension as stories are revealed and beads of sweat on foreheads start to show.

Gethin Alderman
Gethin Alderman

Miller presents his characters as “symbols”, several don’t have names and one, the “Old Jew”, doesn’t speak – great credit to Jeremy Gagan for making this role so effective. Rebuking the Nazi idea that there are “no individuals”, the men’s stories suffuse the work. There’s sterling acting here, including PK Taylor’s hip flask swigging thespian – a deluded pragmatist who dismisses theories and fears. And a collection of impressive breakdowns as the waiting continues. Both Lawrence Boothman and Michael Skellern, as an artist and a waiter, build their performances well. Edward Killingback, as a Vienese nobleman, comes into his own under Alderman’s scrutiny and Henry Wyrley-Birch makes a great contribution as a somewhat token “decent” German.

It’s these glimpses of lives, most about to end, that highlight Willmott and his casts’ talents. A collection of strong performances, finely controlled, that preserve the life and death tension in a piece that occasionally sounds like a textbook, making it work as drama.

Until 22 April 2017

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“The Man Who Had All The Luck” at the King’s Head Theatre

Director Paul Lichtenstern celebrates the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth with a respectable revival of the master playwright’s first Broadway play. It’s probably fair to say this is a less well known and, overall, lesser work but, as the piece is so seldom performed, you should take a chance the see it. And even Miller before his best is way ahead of most writers.

Lichtenstern works dedicatedly with the script, drawing out the mileage Miller gets from his hero David’s blessed life: his luck in both marriage and work, how obstacles disappear and opportunities embrace him. Jamie Chandler takes on the role of this contemporary tragic hero and is clearly an actor to watch out for, transitioning eloquently from responsible young man to paranoiac – his fortune contrasts so profoundly with those around him that he obsesses that he will have to pay one day.

Jamie Chandler, Michael Kinsey in The Man Who Had All the Luck at King's Head Theatre, photography by George Linfield
Jamie Chandler and Michael Kinsey

The strong surrounding cast includes Keith Hill and Michael Kinsey, playing David’s father and brother, with a dexterous sub plot about a baseball career that goes wrong. And Chloe Walshe, in a mostly underwritten role, deals superbly with the final scene when her character and David, now wife and husband, come closest to breaking down.

The play is overwhelmingly schematic – Miller termed it a ‘fable’ – but it’s constructed, or maybe it’s better to think of it as contained, with skill and sincerity. Lichtenstern appreciates the piece’s probity, attempting to question fate and autonomy alongside that old chestnut, the American Dream, and adding a superb score that he composed with Mike Smaczylo. That Miller’s concluding act is less satisfactory, coming too close to contrived, doesn’t take away from this production’s achievement.

Until 27 September 2015

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photos by George Linfield

“Death of a Salesman” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Gregory Doran’s revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman fully justifies the director’s claim that this is the greatest American play of the 20th century. Although rooted in post-war US society, Miller’s family tragedy and critique of capitalism transcends time and place. Perhaps recent economic woes make this powerful play freshly pertinent: the loss of job security for long-serving salesman Willy Loman rings alarm bells for us all. And perhaps, too – aided by our increased awareness of dementia – Willy’s tragic decline has added poignancy. Just as likely, the play is simply a masterpiece.

Antony Sher is confident and controlled in the lead role. Clearly passionate about the part, Sher projects an intensity that enfolds you. It’s an exceptionally subtle and intelligent delivery: for all Willy’s faults, we see why his family loves him, he isn’t made an underdog and there are no excuses for his behaviour – but he still retains our sympathy. Willy’s confidence seesaws constantly, moments of self-doubt are carefully hinted at. When Willy is presented with the gas pipe he plans to kill himself with, Sher’s whole body becomes frozen. It’s a tremendous theatrical moment.

Backed by Harriet Walter as Willy’s wife, with Alex Hassell and Sam Marks as his sons, the family struggles with the delusions of success and excess of optimism that construct their dreams. This is an unbeatable quartet of performances. The fight to see facts instead of fantasy is a relentless focus. Willy’s memories, possibly false, presented as the consequence of his age and misfortune, slide into the action dynamically. The downward spiral of the whole family in the second half is gut-wrenching and miraculously suspense-filled. We can all predict what’s coming but Doran makes it riveting, obeying the play’s demand that “attention must be paid”.

Until 18 July 2015

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

“All My Sons” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s 2014 season got off to a cracking start last night with a new production of All My Sons. The Arthur Miller classic, about a war profiteer and his family, is given a terrific treatment by the theatre’s artistic director Timothy Sheader. The play’s moral concerns and complexity receive due deference while a tremendous amount of suspense is added in.

Sheader has some fine performers to work with. Tom Mannion and Bríd Brennan play the Kellers with care and skill; he seems all conviviality, the working man made good, while her fixed grin belies an iron will corroded by the secrets they share. Rich from supplying faulty goods to the US Air Force, the next generation must share the legacy of their mistakes.

Back from fighting in World War II, the Keller’s son Chris is caught between a family mourning his lost brother and his own noble ambitions to live a better life. Chris’ love for his brother’s sweetheart, Ann, literally the girl next door, forces him to confront the role her father took as a patsy for the Kellers’ crime. Amy Nuttall plays Ann with skilful restraint, building momentum as the play’s shocking revelations unfold.

Charles Aitken excels as Keller Jnr, the war-traumatised conscience of the piece, with a perfect smile that reflects his character’s optimism and the charm to convince us that he is as good as he seems. In a play seething about the hypocrisy behind the poster-perfect American suburbs (aided here by Maddie Rice’s superb performance as a neighbour), Chris has to be the believable beacon of integrity, and Aitken delivers a great performance.

Not surprisingly, Sheader knows how to use the space at his own theatre. Tying the play’s timing to the setting of the sun is hugely effective, while Lizzie Clachan’s set is thought provoking and Nick Powell’s music superb. The play speeds by at a cracking pace and the carefully controlled tension is tremendous. A stunning final scene makes this a truly haunting evening and shows a director in charge of a quality production.

Until 7 June 2014

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Tommy Ga Ken Wan

Written 21 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Last Yankee” at The Print Room

The Print Room has produced another quality show with a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Last Yankee. Casting the spotlight on a pair of husbands visiting their wives in a mental hospital, this short play combines the stories of two very different marriages with a social commentary on the American dream. The production, combining the young talent of director Cathal Cleary and an experienced cast, delivers a great deal in just over an hour.

LastYankee Matilda Zielger (Patricia Hamilton) and Kika Markham (Karen Frick) credit Ellie Kurttz133
Matilda Zielger and Kika Markham

The performances are ones to relish. Paul Hickey has the strongest part as the carpenter descendant of a founding father, generating sympathy for a proud working man whose efforts to make ends meet frustrate his wife Patricia (captivatingly played by Matilda Ziegler). Their fellow New Englanders are self-made Frick and reclusive Karen, who seem to have it all. Andy De La Tour and Kika Markham make a fantastic team in these roles, forming the play’s emotional backbone as an elderly couple facing frightening problems.

Miller’s idea that money and status have become too damagingly connected is forcefully written and respectfully presented. Arguably, too much has happened in America in the 20 years since the play was penned for these concerns to overly interest an audience in Notting Hill in 2013. But even when Miller’s allegory pushes against credibility (in particular the suggestion that Patricia is punishing her husband by having a break down), human drama is to the fore. The performances focus attention on the pain of mental illness and there are heart-rending moments that make it easy to recommend this show.

Until 5 October 2013

www.the-print-room.org

Photos by Ellie Kurttz

Written 16 September 2013 for The London Magazine

“All My Sons” at the Apollo Theatre

Now is a good time to revive Arthur Miller’s 1947 masterpiece All My Sons. The story of a war profiteer whose faulty goods killed U.S. airmen, is so full of moral dilemmas that it is always entertaining and powerful. But currently, as corporate responsibility is in the news and questions of social justice become vital in our increasingly divided society, All My Sons has become more important than ever.

This summer, at the Apollo Theatre, All My Sons gets the production it deserves. William Dudley’s beautiful set wins you over before the action even starts. It is the perfect stage for what at first seems to be a homely drama. In the skilful hands of director Howard Davies, this is developed into a perfect mix of touching domestic tension and complex politics expressed with intellectual vigour.

The dual concern for both family matters and society as a whole is also well expressed by the uniformly brilliant cast. Stephen Campbell Moore plays Chris Keller – having survived the war he is now in the position of taking over the family business. A devoted son and noble man, he wishes to marry his dead brother’s sweetheart – Jemima Rooper gives a superb performance in this role. Desperate for love and sharing high principles the couple are haunted by mistakes and lies that began long ago.

Chris’s parents, Kate and Joe, are presented first as a devoted older couple, so comfortable together that they share mannerisms and know each others thoughts. We come to see they are also linked by the lies they tell each other and the world. Zoë Wanamaker’s fragile Kate is hard as steel underneath. David Suchet as Joe, has the slightly harder job of showing the opposite – a genial father figure who is a mess of nerves deep down. Both actors are impeccable throughout.

Kate and Joe have a “talent for lying” and this is where the performances become truly remarkable. A frightening conviction is revealed when their backs are against the wall. Right up until the end both of them seek to control and manipulate. These are technically wonderful performances but there is even more to it than that. Wanamaker and Suchet’s skills have a purpose, their craft is well applied and functions to bring home Miller’s message. Together, they make this the play you simply must see this summer.

Until 2 October 2010

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 3 June 2010 for The London Magazine