You may not have heard of Miller's play No Villain. It was his first, written when he was just 21, and submitted for the $250 Hopgood Award in drama at the University of Michigan, where he was studying in 1936. As the prize was worth about a quarter of the average family income at the time, it was extremely valuable to the Miller family, who had become impoverished during the Great Depression of the early-30s in the USA.
That you are reading about it now and can go and see it at London's Trafalgar Studios, is thanks to director Sean Turner, who worked doggedly to unearth this previously unpublished and unperformed play with the explicit aim of exploring the roots of Miller’s playwriting skills. So Turner has earned his place among Miller scholars for this invaluable insight into the development of one of America’s greatest playwrights. In this production, first seen at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre, he directs a close-knit cast in a way that lets Miller’s early voice shine through in all its youthful vigour, whatever the inevitable imperfections.
The plot is what would become familiar Miller territory, the family tensions between fathers and sons, here in a New York Jewish family, all bound up in a moral dilemma that explores the contradictions between soulless capitalism and the hopes and desires of the individual. In this self-avowedly autobiographical world, would-be communist Arny (a suitably chippy Alex Forsyth) comes home from University to find his father’s coat business on the point of collapse, precipitated by a recently-unionised workers’ strike that stops him shipping his output to customers. His struggling father Abe (David Bromley) and older brother Ben (George Turvey) urge Arny to help them save the business by getting out the orders, but Arny is trapped between loyalty to both his own family and a wider cause.
David Bromley’s Abe is full of the frustrations and tensions of a man whose business has already run down and is now finally collapsing. He is supported by that other Miller trope – his long-suffering wife – brought to life in a somewhat underwritten part by Nesba Crenshaw, with both actors capturing a real sense of time and place. George Turvey does sincere justice to the part of Ben, effectively Miller’s advocate, a good man who sees and tries to balance everything that life throws at him but finally accepts that that things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.
Helen Coles, Michael Lyle, Kenneth Jay and Stephen Omer brace the main characters with vivid character sketches in a variety of those supporting roles (kid sister, worker, grandfather born in the shtetl, rabbi, businessman, doctor…) we would now anticipate in a Miller play. Max Dorey’s small set evokes both the family home and the garment factory, where his realisation of those rails of white coats behind the action in the factory peoples the stage with an eerie chorus of extras, and he takes us from home to factory with a simple but effective switch. The lighting (Jack Weir), sound and original composition (Richard Melkonian), along with Natalie’s Pryce’s costumes, all help engender a real feel of 1930’s New York.
There’s plenty of recognisably Miller-style language, full of vivid, lyrical imagery and a heightened tone that still sounds real. Yet there’s a certain overall coolness in the delivery of Miller’s lines here that doesn’t quite capture the colour and humour of Jewish New York. In the end, it’s a play for Miller aficionados and theatre buffs who like to collect the rare. If you are one of these, it won’t disappoint. If you are not, it still gives a vital insight into the roots of one of the most important prolific and playwrights, not just in American theatre, but on the world stage.
By Judi Herman
No Villain runs until 9 July, 7.45pm & 3pm, £15-£30, at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, SW1A 2DY; 0844 871 7632. www.atgtickets.com/venues/trafalgar-studios