Death of a Salesman - Young Vic
If you see nothing else this season in the theatre you must see Death of a Salesman.
There are five great Arthur Miller plays. This season we have been privileged to see three of them, The Price, All My Sons, and this stunningly good production of Salesman, plus The American Clock which, while it contains some fine writing, isn’t in the same league as the others. What’s missing, in case you’re wondering, is The Crucible and A View from The Bridge. And, if you push me, I can make a good case for a sixth, After the Fall, Miller’s look back at his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
It is well known that I dislike theatrical gimmicks. There has to be a really good reason to mess about with a playwright’s intentions and when the director’s intentions clash with the playwright’s, the rule is, always go with the playwright. He or she probably knew what they were doing and if they didn’t, you don’t need to see the play anyway. Colour-blind casting, gender-swapping, contemporary attitudes imposed on period plays, trans or gay characters where none exist in the text, all sometimes work but not often and, while they can give a fresh look to an old favourite, they can also distort the play out of recognition. My favourite American expression is ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ so when I heard that one of the finest American plays of the 20th or any other century was to be performed by a black cast, I groaned. I knew they were fine actors – Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke, none better - but the play was already wonderful. It wasn’t ‘broke’.
What I didn’t expect was that these actors, in the skilled hands of directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, would transform the play and give it an extra dimension that, while Miller could never have envisaged it, has deepened and enhanced his work in unimaginable ways. It’s still a play about the fallibility of the American Dream and the fracturing of family life, but now it’s also about the broken history of race relations since the War, the feeble attempts to make capitalism work for everybody, and the failure of the black middle class to find their place in a white America which continues to regard them as an alien species.
After a lifetime of hard work as a commercial traveller, slogging round the States for an unappreciative boss, Willy Loman and his wife, Linda, are still struggling to make ends meet. They must now confront the question faced by millions at the end of a career, asking what it was all for and not finding an answer. As their sons, Martins Imhangbe and Arinze Kene, both new to me, give strong performances in support of Pierce and Clarke who are both superb.
This production is unmissable.
The Lehman Trilogy - Piccadilly Theatre
Three actors in a revolving glass box. Three actors in black suits, none of them young, none of them pretty, none of them making a bid for our sympathy. Three actors, making us part of a panoramic picture of world capitalism, of greed, of ambition, and of the grace notes that would otherwise render this astounding story-telling unbearable. Three actors – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley – taking all the roles, but mainly those of three brothers who made good. The Lehman Trilogy is the story of America, the way it gave boundless opportunities to those bold enough to grab them, its grinding determination to succeed at the money game, no matter what the cost. In some ways, then, The Lehman Trilogy is fascinating but repulsive, the story of a family whose only interest was in the acquisition of money and more money.
I kept hearing my mother’s voice in my head. Whenever she read in the newspaper about a criminal she would say, “Oh, I do hope he’s not Jewish”, as though it was impossible to admit that there could be a Jewish criminal without bringing shame on all Jews. The Lehman brothers were indeed Jewish, observant Jews at that, and not criminals at all, unless one counts the thousands who suffered as a result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and they weren’t by any means the only bankers who were in on that disaster.
The Lehman Trilogy is not fun. It’s very long. There are many moments when the audience gets the point long before that part of the play is over and there’s no compassion and not much by way of humanity here, but no matter. This remarkable piece of theatrical magic, adapted by Ben Power from a play by Stefano Massini, and directed impeccably and pitilessly by Sam Mendes, strips all but the essentials from its production, and, at its best, gives us what theatre does better than any other art form, a way of reflecting us back to ourselves. And the picture it reflects is not pretty.
If you can’t get a ticket, there will be a live relay of The Lehman Trilogy from the Piccadilly Theatre on July 25th and it will be at a local cinema near you. You should see it, as a piece of story-telling, as an entertainment, or as a salutary warning of what can happen when money is the only criterion for life.
Even if they are Jewish. Sorry, Mum.
All My Sons – Old Vic
Arthur Miller’s perennial preoccupations with families, personal versus public responsibilities, and the breakdown of conscience are front and centre in All My Sons, just as they are in Death of a Salesman. Joe Keller, a successful manufacturer, has knowingly sold faulty airplane parts to the air force during the War and 21 young pilots have died as a result. His business partner is found guilty and when the play opens, his partner is in jail but Joe has been exonerated and is living with his wife and the one son who returned from the War in suburban comfort. His wife, Kate, still believes that their other son will return home. But by taking care of his own family and factory, Joe has caused the death of 21 other families’ sons.
By serendipity, I had the pleasure of seeing this marvellous play twice in one week, once on Broadway, once at the Old Vic. On Broadway, Annette Bening is a restrained Kate Keller to the explosive Tracy Letts as Joe. Hers is a thoughtful performance where she has clearly thought through every emotion that Kate is prey to. I kept waiting for her to blow in the final explosive scene where all the terrible facts are revealed but she didn’t. She internalises Kate’s horror which is somehow all the more scary. Sally Field plays Kate in London in a febrile and totally believable performance to a much calmer Bill Pullman as Joe. She is the more nervous of the two Kates, so when her husband and son keep begging her not ‘to get worked up’ it’s easy to imagine her doing just that. When she explodes, she really rocks.
Written in 1947, just two scant years after the end of World War Two, All My Sons embodies both the relief and the guilt of having survived, in which its characters – the Kellers and their neighbours – have returned to a world which is at once the same, and profoundly different, from the one they had known before the war. The suburban garden, surrounded by the white picket fence of myth (and reality in this idealised set by Max Jones) has come to symbolise what these Americans had been fighting for but, inevitably, the fissures caused by the experience of war run deep, even if unacknowledged, and innocence, personal and public, has been lost forever.
Colin Morgan’s Chris, all too aware of the missing brother whose fiancée he wants to marry, is splendid at the display of both his own strength and that of his dominant father. He knows that somehow everything in this idyll is wrong – his mother’s blind insistence that Larry will return, his father’s hidden guilt, his fiancee’s determination to move forward, and her brother’s stubborn support of his imprisoned father – but tries to find his own way.
Yes, All My Sons is showing its age in its too-obvious plotting, in its signalling dialogue, and in its careless sexism, but it has so much to say about our society, as well as that of post-War America, that it remains an eternal classic.
The Firm – Hampstead Downstairs
Wonderful Ray Fearon leads the cast in Roy Williams’ moving examination of gang culture and male bonding, tracing its origins from London’s East End to the current, and much more deadly, inner city drug-infused model. The Firm, it turns out, is what a bunch of mainly black teenage miscreants called themselves in the Sixties when they got up to much mayhem, usually in defence of their territory, bounded by a wall, now disappeared under a tower block. They were hardly more than delinquents then, not the hard men they imagined themselves to be, and now they come together as middle-aged men to welcome back one of their number and to remember.
Directed by Denis Lawson, there are performances here to treasure, not just from Fearon, and moments of real pathos and fear for us all as the inexorable march towards the gang culture we are now experiencing continues into violence, one of those theatrical experiences where one wants to stop the play and yell, ‘No, we can do better’.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.