Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Miller’

Review – Death of a Salesman – Royal Shakespeare Company at Noel Coward Theater

May 14, 2015

It seems pretty ridiculous when you think about it that I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, but it has just always seemed so canonical that there didn’t seem to be any real pressure to go. I mean, seeing a rarely produced Arthur Miller play, now that’s an event. But his most famous one? I’d studied it in high school, and, well, now that I think about it, it just didn’t seem to get produced all that much … anyway, so here I am, it’s 2015 and I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, so when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production was coming to the Noel Coward, I jumped right on buying a ticket, especially because I wanted to hit the sweet preview pricing. My reward was a £30 seat in the back of the Royal Circle which, while it did leave dents from my knees in my chest, gave me a fully unobstructed view of the stage and would have been perfect if I’d only been three inches shorter.

Normally I try to hide plot details from people in my reviews, but I’m not really going to do that this time – be warned: like Romeo and Juliet and Carmen, the details of Death of a Salesman are something I’m going to assume you’re familiar with, and I’ll talk about it all freely here. But before I do that, I’m going to share this bit of interval chatter between me and my co-viewer:
“Well, how about that? It’s pretty good, huh? But I wish you could see a version on Broadway.”
“Why would I want that?”
“Well, you know, so you could see all of the famous American actors.”
“Are these actors not famous? I don’t really know.”
“Well, yeah, Antony Sher, and I think Harriet Walter …”
“Look, I don’t need to see anybody else in this play. This cast is perfect. Biff is a little weird but it’s basically the way he’s written. I could not ask for a better production of this show. It’s the kind of thing that makes me thrilled to live in London, where I can see stuff like this, absolutely excellent realistic theater, every night. I can practically expect it. And yet still it’s a bit of a surprise when it’s all as good as this is. Now let’s sit down and watch Willy Loman fall apart.”

Right, off you go people who don’t know the plot.

Thirty years after I last dealt with this play, I’m amazed at both how timelessly its depiction of American values bears up, and how very much my emotional response to the characters’ voyages has changed. As a picture of America, Miller got it spot on in 1949 just as carelessly accurately as O’Neill did in Ah, Wilderness! – but I experience it differently now that I’ve become estranged from my country of birth. Americans’ focus on positivity, the lies people tell when life gets ugly, the materialism and shallowness – it blows me out of the water to see society so unchanged nearly seventy years later. But the vibrancy of the characters Miller created gleamed across the decades as well, and was well polished by the outstanding delivery the RSC’s troupe gave us. As a teenager, I found all of the characters detestable, much as Biff rejects his father for falling short of his moral standards: but as an adult, I can see the shortcomings of all of them through more forgiving eyes. The mother, Linda, whom I hated for being a doormat as well as being disloyal to her sons – now, as a woman near her age, I can see how outstanding her loyalty to her husband is: and with Harriet Walter in the role, I was able to believe, to the soles of my shoes, that Linda truly, deeply loved Willy, and that she understood that he was falling apart and needed her more than ever. The sons, Happy and Biff, well, I can see where Miller has tried to draw them in a way that we can see how their childhood has made them into the people they are today: but I now believe that Biff is a badly created character rather than a detestable human being. Both Biff and Happy treat their father repulsively, but Biff’s inability to get his own life in gear simply doesn’t have a believable basis per Miller’s writing. Alex Hassell gives it his best, but I can’t buy him because I can’t buy the character.

Willy Loman, though, wow, what a tour de force. On paper, reading Linda saying that he is “tired” didn’t work for me; but twenty five years of trying to make sure I have enough money for rent every month has made me blaze with sympathy for the horror of Willy being stuck back on commission and losing his salary – at 60. I’m also more familiar with the way aging affects the mind, and as I watched this man who’s spent his life shilling stockings try to make sense of why his life now seems like shit, well, I am seeing early onset dementia (especially in the Ben scenes) as well as stress. I used to hate Loman for cutting his wife off but I know see how he’s desperately grasping for any life preserver he can find, and his shushing is more to keep his focus than to show any dislike of Linda; and his relationship with his best friend (he seems abusive to him as well) now, once again, reeks of deep, unconditional love on the side of his best friend Charley, which was doubtlessly built over the years and thus is able to be sustained, on Charley’s side, in the face of Loman’s mental collapse – which is brilliantly, diamond-sharp brought to life by Anthony Sher. Every up and down, dream and delusion is made real: his mercurial outbursts, his scrabbling, his begging – it was a believable, absorbing journey from start to finish. I simply could not believe how damned good this play could be, but with a cast this fine, Miller’s tiny wobbles were simply wibbles. I loved it. I’m so glad I had an opportunity to see this definitive performance of this excellent play – I recommend it without reservation at any price level (provide you’re buying from the box office).

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on May 12th, 2015. It continues through July 18th.)

Review – The Last Yankee – The Print Room

September 9, 2013

You wouldn’t think a 75 minute play could really be as intense as The Print Room’s production of The Last Yankee was, but, wow, what a roller coaster ride this was. Firmly in the continuum of plays about mental illness stretching from Long Day’s Journey into Night right up to last year’s The Effect, The Last Yankee had nearly no sense of datedness to it thirty years later. Mental illness is still a problem, and people still don’t know how to deal with it; the people who have it struggle, while their families frequently have to deal with shame as well as the difficulties of managing the situation.

This play is set in a mental institution in a New England town. Two men, Mr Frick (Andy de la Tour) and Mr Hamilton (Paul Hickey), meet in the lobby, where they’re both waiting to see their wives, who are patients. Frick is an older go-getter, owner of a successful hardware store/lumber yard and possibly a car dealership or two; he and his wife have no children. Hamilton is a 40s-ish father of seven who works as a carpenter and is learning to play the banjo. Frick tries to make small talk with Hamilton, but his obsession with money and status grate on the younger man; Hamilton finally blows up at Frick, saying, “This is why people are mentally ill in this country!” (or something of the sort). He then backs off and apologizes, and the scene ends uncomfortably.

This scene was utterly fascinating for me to watch with a British audience. The obsession with class here has been a constant mystery to me, but here were two American(s) (characters) discussing it in the American way: the focus on clothing, occupation, and parentage seemed so familiar, while the fluidity with which one casts off one’s “birth” caste and moves into another was completely foreign in my new country’s experience. I think people were fascinated by the clues Americans process to see how to “slot” one in to their class, but I was also completely willing to accept that Hamilton really didn’t give a rat’s patootie about what his dad did for a living and was utterly happy working as a carpenter – and with no sense of having “stepped down.” It’s not an American way to feel. In fact, it was the rich man who wanted to see him as “one of my sort” who was the crass and inappropriate one – but to be honest, I think he read that way to everyone.

Hamilton’s speech, though, to me seemed like a Shavian soap box moment on Miller’s part. Class and an obsession with money is what makes people mentally ill? It was a bit hard to swallow – impossible, actually. And Miller took a much more nuanced approach to the causes, effects and impacts of mental illness in the rest of the play, making this bit of posturing seem both out of place and fortunately forgettable as a blip in an otherwise excellent play. Miller will be Miller, standing up for the nobility of the common man … you just have to let it pass. My engagement in this scene was not helped by the fact that de la Tour’s acting was a bit heavy – aimed more for the second balcony rather than the extremely intimate print room. His character wants to be the center of attention, sure, but he was almost vibrating to my eyes and ears.

The second half of the play takes place inside of the women’s ward of the institution, where a woman I assumed to be Mrs Hamilton (Patricia – Matilda Ziegler) can be heard playing ping pong in the rec room with another patient (at least I think they were playing together). Patricia comes into the room with her friend, Karen (Kika Markham), and it quickly becomes clear they are on very different stages of their recovery. Patricia seems a bit manic and a little paranoid, but she’s able to consistently talk in full sentences. She reveals to us that she’s stopped taking her meds, which immediately made me wonder if she was going to have a breakdown during this scene – which would have immediately cut short the chances of her coming home, something her husband clearly wants – if she’s well.

Karen, meanwhile, is having trouble forming sentences and jumps from one thought to the next, frequently leaving things hanging in the air, clearly struggling to get by. Patricia quite matter-of-factly says to Karen that her medications are probably making it hard for her to think, providing Karen with genuine compassion. It’s so odd to think that these women would have bonded while they were in, especially given that Karen’s condition is so severe that you might expect “normal” people to want to stay away from her. In fact, it’s actually rather shocking to think that both of these women are in for what is merely called “depression.” It turns out that Karen is actually Mrs Frick, who’s only there for the first time as opposed to Patricia’s third; what has gone wrong with her, you have to ask: she’s so much more broken than just “she likes to sleep all of the time and can’t go out of the house to do the shopping,” as her husband described her.

Sometime during the scene with Karen and Patricia I started to lose the sense of being in a theater and began to feel like I was actually watching real people and began to get very emotionally caught up in what was going on. Markham’s depiction of a very unwell woman was frighteningly believable, as were the petty, ridiculous fights that Hamilton and Patricia get into later in the scene. But the end, where Karen attempts to show her husband how good she’s become at dancing, just about broke me: Frick’s look of disgust at what he clearly considers his now-freakish wife had me struggling not to cry. Thank God Patricia – accused by her husband of being negative and materialistic – came to her friend’s rescue – along with her “useless” husband and his “stupid” banjo. Both of them accompany Karen through the rest of her dance routine when Frick turns his back on her, while Patricia also cues Frick on how to behave like some semblance of a decent, supportive human being – which Karen clearly, clearly needs to believe he is. And somehow, in doing this, Patricia and her husband find there sense of trust in each other. But I felt gutted for Karen. Hamilton – descendent of Alexander Hamilton – may be the last Yankee, but there’s no shortage of people like Frick who think that a person who isn’t producing maximum value – whether a person who choses carpentry over law or a wife who’s too afraid to go out and do the shopping – have lost their value and should be tossed on the scrap heap.

Miller’s play seems to me an indictment both of the overmedicalization of depression but also of the underlying pressures that cause so many women to experience bad mental health in middle age. I left feeling gutted, forced to remind myself that I was just watching actors and Markham was doing just fine, probably smoking a cigarette and having a laugh after the show. But it felt real and it hurt – a sign, I think, that Arthur Miller was fully in control of his writing during this play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 7th, 2013. It continues through October 5th.)

Review – All My Sons – Apollo Theatre

June 17, 2010

All My Sons is a play that didn’t hit my radar until after it opened. I’ve seen Henry Miller Arthur Miller but not considered him great; the cast (as ever) meant nothing to me; and, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution of seeing “less plays, but enjoying them more,” I didn’t bother booking tickets on spec just to get in an early review. But then the reviews started coming in, and with the quick glance at the West End Whingers’ surprisingly generous allocation of wine glasses on top of ShentonStage’s enthusiastic (possibly “raving”) opening night tweets, suddenly All My Sons was on the map and rocketing into must-see levels. A couple of quick glances at various papers showed similar levels of enthusiasm, and then it was off on the hunt for tickets, and quickly, before they became impossible to get at anything approaching affordable prices. TKTS was showing availability on early-weekday nights at half price, but LastMinute wasn’t really coming through: all signs pointed to “hit!” But then I had a bit of good luck; a friend of mine who’s hearing impaired wanted to go, and thanks to her I actually got to sit in the stalls for half price (nicely situated for her to lip read) – row F on a Tuesday night.

My efforts were well rewarded and I think my summary judgment on this show is that, for once, the West End’s got something that is worth paying full price. The cast is good, and effortlessly American; and the script is powerful, succeeding both in creating characters that are realistic and intriguing, and a plot that rockets along like Ibsen’s best, leaving you wide-eyed and excited at intermission because you want to know what’s going to happen next. I had no idea, as I’d carefully avoided reading too much plot: a nice and spoiler-free summary is “the card-house of lies Joe Keller (David Suchet) had built comes crashing down on his head, and he knows he cannot escape.” (I think I saw this in the Metro’s review, so no credit for originality.) Miller deftly captures the venality at the heart of American culture; while England may be a nation of shopkeepers, America is more of a nation of salesman and manufacturers, always looking for the better deal, and valuing the “almighty dollar” above anything else. This is how we get disasters like the BP oil slick visited on us; greed and industry-favoring deals are in the nation’s blood. At the same time, Miller shows a country where people do, well and truly, love each other, and not just because of family ties; and a population of people who can have very high standards … but too often find them, eventually, compromised. This gives the story, set clearly a few years after World War II (yet vaguely in “an American town” – I imagine Michigan or Illinois), a lovely timelessness that make the historical references mere markers to give us context*.

Playing characters this complex is tricky, I think, but the cast uniformly managed to not seem cartoonish in some difficult roles. Kate Keller (Zoe Wannamaker, with her strange New Jersey-ish accent) makes her belief in the existence of her missing son – with its attendant rquest for astrological charts and strange obsessions with a fallen tree – ultimately true to the core, alongside her dedication to her husband Joe in full sight of his failings; Jemima Rooper, as the missing son’s fiancée Anne Deever, initially comes off as too hard to be of the era (and so young), but as her character unfolds, her resolve becomes more reasonable and her underlying conflicts flesh out her actions and make her ability to make any connections more reasonable – still, she seemed a bit stiff.

Potentially clunkiest of them all is Joe and Kate’s son Chris. This character seems to lend itself to being a buffoonish role – either too prude, or too idealistic to be believed, or just generally so inflexible that he can’t possibly come off as a real person. But Stephen Campbell Moore must have poked around deeply to find all of the threads that could take a man who loves his family – and his father – so much, stuffed him full of the milk of human kindness, then sent him off to war to watch his men all die while he tried to hold onto whatever it was that made him himself and gave him a reason to keep on living. I really thought I was never going to warm to Chris, but after he passed through some smallish marriage and love type crisis and moved on to his relationship with his family, he came to life at last and started just to be Chris, Chris who doesn’t believe all people to be good but who truly wants them to be.

Of course the whole play rotates around dad, Joe Keller, the man whose love of his family supposedly motivates him above all else; he’s a fun businessman who takes pride in the business he’s built and seems to hold no grudges. But David Suchet lets us know in bits and pieces that there’s some pretty deep conflicts swimming below Joe’s genial, Midwestern surface; and all along the ride Suchet holds onto our reins tightly, making us feel like we are in the drivers seat until suddenly it becomes clear that he’s gone some place we never expected and we are not going to be able to turn back from this, any more than Joe can. We have reached our final destination and it is too late for us to say we meant to go somewhere else; the cart comes undone as if its nails were all simultaneously pulled and we’re left with a spinning wagon wheel and the strange feeling that it all was supposed to turn out differently, somehow. Suchet handles the role effortlessly, as if he’d spent years working a factory and playing poker with his neighbors, and every drop of his character rang true for me.

I could say a few words about the set (nice foliage; bad lighting fixtures on the house and period inappropriate lawn furniture) or the costumes (Kate’s red dress deliciously appropriate; most of the cast could entirely use a retuning to a proper 1948 look), but they’re all just side notes to a brilliant production that left me feeling exhilarated as I walked out into the night. I know this isn’t exactly the “feel good hit of the summer,” but it’s a great show and it’s left me with a hankering for a trip to see “The Crucible” as it’s also on. As for you (dear reader), I highly advise you to book tickets for this admirable play.

*Note: the only thing I found utterly mysterious in this show was the reference to “kissing at Labor Day.” For you Englishers, Labor Day is our end of summer Bank Holiday but why the kissing? Per the quite comprehensive Gurthrie Study Guide, back in the 40s there used to be carnivals over this holiday, which featured kissing booths. Who knew?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 15th, 2010. All My Sons continues through October 2nd, 2010. For more reviews, please see, where they are nicely compiled in a big list.)

Reviews – Dimetos, Donmar Warehouse and A View from the Bridge, Duke of York’s Theatre

April 29, 2009

While I don’t normally double up my reviews, there were so many similarities between these two plays that I thought it would make sense to review them together. Both are modern Greek tragedies, both …


Just let me be clear, I am about to give away major plot points. I recommend both of these plays, with the note that A View from the Bridge makes for a better evening’s entertainment (due to being less abstract) than Dimetos, though Dimetos has more beautiful language and imagery and may have more appeal to the sophisticated theater-goer looking to have her imagination tickled. And with THAT, I continue my review and move on to the SPOILERS ….

Both are modern Greek tragedies, both feature men who are inappropriately attracted to their orphaned nieces. Culturally speaking, they are millions of miles away from each other, as Bridge‘s Eddie Carbone (in a note-perfect performance by Ken Stott) is a hard-working longshoreman of the sort idolized by Dimetos (Jonathan Pryce), a highly educated South African engineer. Eddie’s problems (alongside “making enough money to feed his family” and “hiding his wife’s illegally immigrated relatives, who are living in his house”) are how to make sure his his niece is taken care of in a world where a lot of things can go wrong for a young woman; Dimetos’ biggest problem seems to be staving off boredom. In fact, Dimetos seems comically spoiled compared to Eddie, and while he’s certainly engaged with his environment (as in the beginning scene where he’s solving the problem of getting a horse out of a well), it’s just really hard to garner up a huge pile of sympathy for a man with such a big ego.

Oddly, it’s also Eddie’s ego that gets him hugely into trouble at the end of the play (whereas Dimetos’ trouble is ultimately caused by his inaction), but it just seems so much more compelling to see a man whose anger is at having his life overturned and who is, in fact, protecting what he considers to be his own. Mustering up a full head of sympathy is a bit difficult for either of them considering that, well, it is clear that both of them don’t have their hearts in the right place when it comes to their relationships with their nieces, but Eddie the fighter, even if he’s a drunk and lashes out at his loved ones, is easier to understand than Dimetos the dreamer, who feels free to complain about what’s wrong with the world but doesn’t seem to be willing to engage with it.

The heart of both of these plays wants to be the men, but in Dimetos it is the niece, Lydia (Holliday Grainger, whose perfectly toned body had me and my husband debating her workout regime long after we’d stopped talking about the play) who is the real center of her show – much as she is the center of Dimetos’ world. Watching her interact with housekeeper Sophia (Anne Reid) and visitor Danilo (Alex Lanipekun) is fascinating – Sophia clearly loves her and the two of them have a relationship that shows signs of years and years of being built, and the budding love affair with Danilo is just amazingly tense. Will he? Won’t she? And does Lydia even know where things are going? She forms a fascinating character study of a girl on the brink of womanhood – and perhaps passing over it – though the ultimate turn she takes during the play seems to make little sense in terms of her overall personality.

Lydia and Eddie’s niece Catherine (Hayley Atwell) also have a lot in common. Despite being orphaned, they’ve been sheltered and perhaps a bit spoiled; but in an atmosphere in which they have been loved to pieces, they’ve both grown up intelligent, engaged with the world, convinced of their own powers, and perhaps a bit naive. It makes me wonder if Lydia would have followed Catherine’s arc and finally had to just make a run for it if she’d stayed. Catherine, however, did not provide all of the heart of Bridge, as Eddie so strongly held the stage, but as a part of a trio in which the “other woman” was Eddie’s wife, she was in a much more precarious position than Lydia was. It was, in fact, quite painful to watch the tug of war with Catherine’s head as Eddie attempted to bend her to his will and Bea (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) attempted to bend Catherine’s head to a view of reality that would ensure Bea’s continued primacy in the family, and this further added to the dramatic tension of Bridge.

In general, the drama of the Carbone family (will the immigrants be caught and deported? will Eddie’s niece fall in love?) seems much more vibrant that that of Dimetos’ household (will Dimetos decide to return to an exciting job in the city rather than continuing to live somewhere where he’s not appreciated? will the adults start treating Lydia like a part of the family again?), especially given that a key turning point in Dimetos involves two people both going mad and the actors involved doing it completely unbelievably. While the narrator Arthur Miller dropped in Bridge tends to make the whole thing sound a bit Sam Spade (with flat, identical Brooklyn accents), I’m not surprised that Bridge was ultimately able to keep forty 17 year old students riveted to their seats while Dimetos is the rare Donmar non-sellout. I enjoyed them both, but Dimetos, despite its brilliant script and fine performances, was, like Dimetos himself, just too “woo woo” and in love with itself to really provide as much of a punch as A View from the Bridge. I say see both if you can, but if you can only see one … well, do you want to see the play you’ll never see revived again, or do you want to see the one that’s a hugely compelling night out?

Oh, who am I kidding. View from the Bridge is great. But if you miss seeing Holliday Grainger hog up the stage with her big heart and her radiant, perfectly-formed self, you may truly regret it.

(The Dimetos performance reviewed here was seen on Friday, April 24th, 2009. Dimetos continues through Saturday, May 9th, 2009. A View from the Bridge was seen on Monday, April 27th, 2009 and continues through Saturday, May 16th, 2009. If anyone can get me tickets for the Donmar’s next production, A Doll’s House, please let me know as it’s already sold out and I’m sad.)


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