Miller’s unsettling last play leaves the story unfinished
Several of Miller’s plays are revealingly autobiographical and this, his last, is an intriguing part of the story. Getting its European premiere here, Finishing the Picture does indeed deal with endings, although it is set some decades before he wrote it in 2004. By the time Marilyn Monroe was filming her last movie, The Misfits, her marriage to Miller was on its last legs and Monroe herself was on a descent: her mental health delicate, her drug addiction self-evident. Miller’s play, set on the Nevada desert backlot of a movie a lot like The Misfits, is a study of the movie industry’s culture of exploitation, its movers and shakers anaesthetised to the wants and needs of their stars. And Miller counts himself among the guilty here.
The production team are in disarray for Kitty, the movie’s star, who cannot or will not get out of bed to finish the picture. The first half of the play exposes just how self-centred the movie’s creatives can be, squabbling over how to get Kitty back to work and their individual needs and demands. Phil Willmott’s dark, poetic production traps them in a room together; a room dominated by a surreal nude bust. She’s missing a breast and, like the Venus de Milo, an arm. A phallus-like shape gives a thumbs up where the head should be. It casts an unsettling shadow on set designer Isabella Van Braeckel’s crimson walls, lit by Rachel Sampley.
As Kitty herself never appears, that’s all you get to start with. Until that is, the almost visionary second half, which comprises a series of duets for voice and jazz combo. Each of the creatives tries in turn to lure Kitty out, by turns cajoling, bullying, pleading and flattering. The sax in sound designer Nicola Chang’s unsettling jazz track rises to hysterical crescendos, conjuring Kitty fighting her corner.
No one comes out of it well in either half. Derek Clemson’s devious director Stephen Billington and Oliver le Sueuer’s embattled producer Philip Oschner are, by turns, wheedling and brutal. Nicky Goldie and Tony Wreddon relish their roles as power couple Jerome and Flora Fassinger, Miller’s wicked caricatures of acting coaches Lee and Paula Strasberg. He is an effete pseud, she is strident in her demands for perks she deems due to her status. Both treat Kitty like a child.
As Terry Case the director of photography, Patrick Bailey gets to stand for all those who objectify Kitty, in his case through the camera lens. Only Edna Meyers’ Rachel Handshaw, the star’s PR, displays any empathy for her – and she is embarking on an affair with Jeremy Drake’s Paul, the writer, Miller’s rather shadowy self portrait (he would indeed later marry Inge Morath, Misfits production photographer, whom Rachel represents).
It’s an intriguing addition to the canon, especially in the light of the ‘Me Too’ movement (it’s worth noting that Miller did have a mute, naked Kitty walk across the stage, a direction sensitively eschewed by Willmott). Miller’s last play may be not his finest – but it gets a fine production here.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
Finishing the Picture runs until Saturday 7 July. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 3pm (Sat & Sun only). £18-£20, £16-£18 concs. Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 01223 357 851. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk