by Arthur Miller
Apollo Theatre, London
Booking to October 02, 2010
Premiering in January 1947, Arthur Miller was so unsure of his prospects with this, his first major play, that he kept on his job in a factory. He didn't need to for long as this play made his name.
With the country still raw from World War II he challenged received notions about the nobility of all those who were caught up in it. He asked awkward questions about those who always manage to profit from war and he began to explore a seam he would return to regularly in his future work, namely our responsibility to each other. For Miller our responsibility goes beyond ourselves and our families to society at large and we ignore this at our peril.
Joe Keller (David Suchet) a successful factory owner is alleged to have supplied World War II fighter planes with defective engine parts, leading to the deaths of innocent pilots, a crime for which he has allowed his business partner to take the fall. One of Keller's sons, Larry, himself a pilot is thought to have been killed in action although no body has been recovered. Keller's wife Kate (Zoe Wanamaker) can't accept that her son is dead and equally is upset that her dead son's fiancée Ann (Jemima Roper) has transferred her affections to her other son Chris (Stephen Campbell Moore). To complicate matters Ann happens to be the daughter of the ex business partner who is now languishing in prison, a broken man.
The play begins with Chris preparing for Ann's visit in which he hopes he can get his mother's blessing for their marriage. It ends with a revelation from Ann in a letter she received from Larry, which destroys the family.
In this play Miller channelled Greek tragedy and Ibsen and O'Neill to create a perfect fusion of naturalism and big themes and in doing so set the template for much of modern drama. He brilliantly reveals the contradictions inherent in all his characters, and the lengths to which they go to justify their actions. Steven Elder captures the unfulfilled yearning of the neighbour Dr Jim Lubey, who venerates Chris Keller and dreams of a more committed life in medical research. Claire Hackett steals every scene she is in as his practical and down to earth wife, Lydia, who moans, "I resent living next door to the Holy Family".
Tom Vaughan–Lawlor is the gawky neighbour Frank obsessed by horoscopes and feeding Kate's obsession, and Daniel Lapaine brings a searing intensity to Ann's disaffected brother George, who turns up raring for a fight but ends up getting disarmed, yet again, by Kate. In this scene Zoe Wanamaker, dressed for a special night out in her best red dress comes on like a Venus flytrap and nails the character. Up till then she's been a sleep–deprived zombie, knowing deep down her husband is guilty. When she sees the threat that George can pose she comes over as a lioness. Her triumph is nearly complete until a misjudged comment gives the game away.
David Suchet brilliantly portrays the transformation of Joe from the confident local patriarch to a physically shrunken wreck of a man. We feel desperately for his plight and the play challenges us all to put ourselves in his place.
The production is greatly enhanced by Bill Dudley's uber–realistic set, a gigantic white clapboard house smothered in weeping willows. Director Howard Davies has returned to this play ten years after his triumph with it at the National. He has found new riches in it and a cast that will be hard to beat. My guess is that Suchet and Wanamaker will need to make room for new acting gongs on their mantelpieces.