It’s open season on Arthur Miller in the UK right now, as this second autobiographical play looking back to the legacy of the Great Depression joins The Price on the London stage, with All My Sons waiting in the wings to follow in April. It’s also a sign of the times that both the…
What links London’s latest hit musical An American in Paris, a revival of Incident in Vichy – an Arthur Miller drama not seen in this country for 50 years – and the centenary of the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, who continues to enchant more than 70 years after she perished in the Holocaust?
The clue is in the titles of the theatre pieces. Arthur Miller's Incident in Vichy concerns the fate of 10 men detained in Vichy, France, at the height of World War II in 1942, when Vichy became notoriously synonymous with the French government of Marshal Pétain that collaborated with the Nazis. An American in Paris, freshly adapted from the much-loved Gershwin movie musical, is reimagined with a story set in the City of Light in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the war. The heroine is a young Jewish ballerina safely hidden by Parisians, while her parents have disappeared in wartime Provence. And the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, escaping Nazi Germany to take refuge in the South of France, was herself arrested in Villefranche in September 1943 aged just 26 – within a month she had been murdered on arrival in Auschwitz.
Salomon was born 100 years ago this April and in the April edition of Jewish Renaissance, which will reach subscribers just before Passover, I explore the continuing allure of her life and work as expressed in the 765 autobiographical series of gouaches that make up her Life? Or Theatre?, in the company of the co-creators of a new play with music telling her story "in three dimensions".
I have just had the good fortune to marvel at the glorious evocation of the newly-liberated City of Light in American in Paris – a show that adds depth to the light-as-air story of the much-loved film musical without losing any of its charm and vitality, thanks to a fresh plot with Jewish protagonists at its heart. Find out more in my American in Paris review.
My most recent review is of an extraordinarily well-cast and tightly-directed revival of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy. The production successfully ratchets up the tension of Miller’s 90-minute morality play examining the different responses and fates of those 10 men picked off the streets of Vichy by a Nazi regime intent on rounding up Jews for deportation. It continues at London's Finborough Theatre until Saturday 22 April.
By Judi Herman
Set in the detention room of a Vichy police station in 1942, Miller’s drama explores the ways paranoia among those detained by the Nazis could descend so easily into guilt and fear, making it all too easy for the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Ten men wait to be called. At first, the strained and nervous discussion is about why they might be there (a random pick up, routine check on their papers), but it soon emerges that some (or most) are Jews who have fled German-occupied northern France for the southern, ‘unoccupied’ Free Zone.
The play examines the various characters (some not even given a name: Gipsy, Waiter, Boy, Old Jew) and how they react to the increasingly frightening circumstances in which they find themselves. Some hope against hope that it will all turn out alright, even after communist railway worker Bayard (powerful Brendan O’Rourke) warns of cattle trucks full of people going to Poland to rumoured death camps. Others urge direct action, by the able-bodied at least. Are there ‘bad’ Germans and ‘passive’ Jews? In this classic morality play laying out the choices of good and evil between man and man and particularly within man himself, there are serial confrontations that reveal just how many points there can be on the so-called moral compass.
Previous, rare, productions of this Arthur Miller play suffered from trying to crank in dramatic action to beef up the morality statement, risking pre-empting the play’s climax, which does offer the promise of redemptive action (the ‘incident’). Here, director Phil Willmott makes the wise decision to let the words speak for themselves by focusing on designer Georgia de Grey’s white banquette within a white box that works brilliantly (literally) in the Finborough’s limited space. His superb line up of detainees are arranged on or around it in shifting poses as eloquent as Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Above them looms their eerie shadows, sharply-defined by Robbie Butler’s lighting.
From Lawrence Boothman’s painter, eyes eloquent with terror, to PK Taylor’s wonderfully infuriating actor, apparently in denial about his predicament; from Edward Killingback’s conscience-ridden Austrian nobleman (authentically tall and blonde) to Gethin Alderman’s French (Jewish) army doctor presenting Miller’s moral dilemma; this is a faultless and generous ensemble, perfectly cast to flesh out Miller’s selection of ‘types’ and to invest his rhetoric with humanity and pathos. And among the German captors, Timothy Harker, chillingly embodying the Nazi professor who revels in flushing out Jews, and Henry Wyrley-Birch’s conflicted Major, his war wound rendering him terrifyingly unpredictable, contribute to 90 minutes of almost unbearable tension.
The questions Miller poses are relevant today and this is an exceptional opportunity to see a rarely performed play in a production that Miller would surely have adored.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
Incident at Vichy runs from Wednesday 7 – Sunday 25 June. 7pm (Tue-Sat only), 2.15pm (Sat & Sun only). £19.50-£25, £16 concs. King's Head Theatre, N1 1QN. 020 7226 8561. www.kingsheadtheatre.com
How strangely Miller’s first great hit resonates with today, in ways no one could have predicted. This beautifully measured play opens with shots of laidback family life in a typical American small town where everyone knows one another. Comfortably-off factory owner Joe Keller’s backyard is a focal point, where he and the neighbouring doctor are reading the papers. “What’s today’s calamity?” jokes David Horovitch’s amiable Joe. Cue gales of ironic audience laughter, with the US election so raw.
For a play that unfolds like a Greek tragedy, it’s surprising how much laughter is built into these opening scenes. But that’s the point: drama, and especially tragedy, is an interruption of routine.
Director Michael Rudman worked extensively with Miller himself, notably directing an award-winning production of Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffman. So Rudman brings a huge depth of insider knowledge, as well as a sure directorial instinct for the pace of the story and the complex relationships between its protagonists. There’s a terrific cast here too and designer Michael Taylor’s unusually realistic set – cosy front porch leading onto a verdant garden – works especially well too for a story that is all too authentic.
Keller is the father at the heart of Miller’s story, set in 1946. His younger son Larry is MIA in World War II and faulty aircraft parts manufactured in his factory caused the loss of other fathers’ sons. His deputy Steve Deever, who took the rap, remains in prison and although it’s known in the community that Joe is equally guilty, the Kellers’ lives seem unaffected on the surface. His wife Kate refuses to accept Larry is dead and his surviving son Chris wants to marry Larry’s girl Ann – daughter of Steve. And the Deevers used to live next door in what is now the doctor’s house, so those relationships are complex and uneasy indeed.
Horovitch’s Joe is all bluff heartiness, demanding to be liked and in pole position in both family and community, his guilt buried deep until events unravel. Penny Downie’s Kate is brittle in her bonhomie, steely in hope, her grief and guilt making her seem vulnerable, drifting almost wraith-like in long housecoats. Their relationship is clearly still physical. Like Claudius and Gertrude, they enjoy the fruits of a calamitous deceit and like the heroes of Greek tragedy they must be undone.
You can see why Francesca Zoutewelle’s enchanting Ann has fallen for Alex Waldmann’s intelligent Chris from the moment she skips into the yard like a breath of fresh air. He has a sense of humour and a conscience – a combination that would bode well for them as soulmates in any other circumstance. But Edward Harrison’s dark, angry George is an all too credible avenging fury.
Rudman told his cast: “Don’t sell the play to the audience. Make them come to you”. It’s a tactic that works wonderfully as the story reaches its tragic climax over the course of a day. Not simply a Greek tragedy, or an all-American one, but a human tragedy from one of America’s greatest Jewish playwrights given a production of which he would surely have approved.
by Judi Herman
Photos by Mark Douet
All My Sons runs until Saturday 19 November, 7.30pm matinees Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm, £8-£35, at Rose Theatre Kingston, 24 – 26 High St, KT1 1HL; 020 8174 0090. www.rosetheatrekingston.org
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
This month BBC Radio has joined in the celebrations of Arthur Miller’s centenary (he was born 17 October 1915) with a terrific season of dramas and documentaries exploring his life and work on Radio 3, 4 and 4 Extra – including the broadcast world premiere of The Hook, which had its world premiere on the stage earlier this year, as reported in Jewish Renaissance. Read on for all the necessary details, and if you miss/have missed any of the programmes, they will be available on BBC iPlayer for a month after broadcast.
Coming up this Saturday 17 October on Radio 4…
2.30-4.15pm Unmade Movies: Arthur Miller's The Hook The world broadcast premiere of Arthur Miller's unproduced screenplay tells the story of a 1950s Brooklyn longshoreman who is fired for standing up to his corrupt union boss, but decides to fight back by standing for union president.
8-9pm Archive on 4: Attention Must Be Paid – Arthur Miller's Centenary "Attention must be paid to such a person," says Linda of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'. Miller himself spent his long life paying close attention to the society and times in lived in. He scrutinised the American Dream in 'Salesman', in 'The Crucible' revealed its hysteria and in 'All My Sons' its corruption. One hundred years, to the day, after the birth of Arthur Miller his biographer, Christopher Bigsby, mines the BBC's and his own archives, tracing the life and work of this towering American figure. There are contributions from Dustin Hoffman, Warren Mitchell and Brian Dennehy, who all played Willy Loman, and Ying Ruocheng, who played the role in Beijing. Henry Goodman speaks about working on his late play, 'Broken Glass'. We hear from Harold Pinter, Nicholas Hytner and John Malkovich. And there is previously unbroadcast material from Miller's brother and sister, and his wife, the photographer, Inge Morath.
Still available to catch up on…
The Essay: Staging Arthur Miller on Radio 3 To mark the centenary of Arthur Miller's birth (17th October 1915), in five 15-minute programmes on Radio 3, playwrights, directors and an actor, reflect on what his work means to them and describe their personal connection with the playwright and his work. They are first broadcast from Monday to Friday 12 to 16 October at 10.45pm
The Life and Times of Arthur Miller on Radio 4 Four 45-minute biographical dramas broadcast in Radio 4’s Afternoon Drama slot from 12 to 15 October
Fame on Radio 4 Extra three short stories by Miller under the title ‘Fame’ on Radio 4 Extra
Arthur Miller: The Accidental Musical Collector on Radio 4 Extra Playwright Arthur Miller taped Blues and spiritual songs of North Carolina's poor in 1941. With Christopher Bigsby. From February 2005.
Playing the Salesman on Radio 4 Extra Christopher Bigsby analyses the role of Willy Loman, the central character in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Contributors include Dustin Hoffman, Warren Mitchell, Brian Dennehy and Alun Armstrong, all of whom have played the role.
By Judi Herman
In the mid 1940’s Miller was captivated by the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn that contained so many docks and landing piers. He was fascinated by the close community of longshoremen (dockers) and their precarious life of casual day hire, unsafe working practices and exploitation by corrupt Union officials in thrall to the Mafia. Intrigued by the death of Pete Panto, a longshoreman who vanished after confronting Union corruption, Miller wrote “a play for the screen", believing that cinema could be a more democratic way of playing his story to the community he was writing about.
Miller’s Panto is Marty Ferrera, a loud-mouthed and opinionated longshoreman, complete with docker’s hook round his neck. He is also, as Miller himself wrote, that “strange, mysterious and dangerous thing” that is a “genuinely moral man…it’s as though a hand had been laid upon him, making him the rebel, pressing him towards a collision with everything that is established and accepted.” What is established and accepted on the docks is the injustice and corruption of a system that sees work awarded in exchange for bribes, making the hand-to-mouth existence of the longshoremen even more precarious. Marty makes his stand against the system when he can no longer support his wife and child, denied work even after offering his own bribe. So he decides to stand for Union President to address the issues head on.
But Marty Ferrera never reached the screen. Pressure from Hollywood executives and arm-twisting by the FBI who worried it would foment dissent in the dockyards, caused Miller to abandon the project and his director, Elia Kazan, went on to make the more acceptable On the Waterfront some five years later.
So how come the play is receiving its world premiere at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatres this year? It’s down to the painstaking work the theatre's Artistic Director James Dacre has put in on realising the project. Of course his staging, a co-production with Liverpool's Everyman, coincides with the centenary of Miller's birth and Dacre says this timely play “talks about the living wage, zero-hours contracts and industrial communities on the brink of enormous change.” Together with designer Patrick Connellan, Dacre spent years collating Miller’s drafts of the play, illuminated by Miller’s own notes. But what we see has been pulled together into a more than workable script by playwright Ron Hutchinson, who proved he has a special insight into and era for Americana in his brilliant Hollywood comedy Moonlight and Magnolias (charting the painful birth of Gone With the Wind, the movie). Hutchinson was struck by the way Miller went out of his way to avoid stock characters and show just how the main protagonists are neither all good nor bad.
The challenge for the team has been to translate something written for the scale of the cinema into a stage production. Connellan’s brooding set, thanks to clever use of Nina Dunn’s projections and Charles Balfour’s moody lighting, is dockyards, streets, offices and homes, allowing all the cross-cutting demanded by the filmic element of the script. There is more than a nod here to film noir and the strictures of black and white lighting.
Dacre marshals his cast as if they are a vital part of the intercutting, and working with movement director Struan Leslie, choreographs the transitions between scenes with beautiful precision and speed.
Jamie Sives as Marty Ferrera (pictured centre, at the top of the review) is suitably Brando-esque as required, yet brings out the humanity of this common man in a way Miller would have appreciated. Susie Trayling, as Marty’s passively supportive and docile wife Therese is nicely understated in a part that’s reminiscent of Linda Loman in Death of Salesman. Joseph Alessi gives a commanding performance as the ruthless Union Chief (if anyone is the man you love to hate, he is!) and the ensemble is effectively swelled by a community ensemble of local amateurs, totally convincing in the non-speaking crowd scenes. Some of the professionals, though, occasionally distract with slightly wandering New Jersey accents.
It’s not in the end as completely satisfying as Miller at his best in the plays we know and love, but it is a compelling study in treachery and probity and the ongoing struggle for social justice for the working man. It all makes for a genuinely exciting evening, with unexpected and twists and turns in a story perhaps more fast-moving yet less in-depth than in Miller’s dedicated stage plays.
By Judi Herman
Photography by Manuel Harlan
The Hook runs until Saturday 27 June. 7.45pm & 2.30pm. £10-£29. Royal & Derngate, Northampton, NN1 1DP; 016 0462 6222. www.royalandderngate.co.uk
The show then moves to Liverpool Wednesday 1 - Saturday 25 July. 7.30pm. £12-£20. Everyman, Liverpool L1 9BH; 015 1709 4776. www.everymanplayhouse.com