Theatre in Wales

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Full-Throttle Revival for American Classic

At Theatr Clwyd

All My Sons- Theatr Clwyd , Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd , October-01-15
At Theatr Clwyd by All My Sons- Theatr Clwyd The last drama from America to be performed by the company in Mold was “Glengarry Glen Ross.” A generation separates David Mamet’s cluster of huckster Chicago real-estate salesmen from the family and neighbours relaxing in a sunny Eastern back yard in Arthur Miller’s 1947 breakthrough play. But the links across the two plays are strong. Both were occasioned by real events. Mamet himself did time in the jungle of an office that he depicts. Miller was haunted by a report he had read of a child’s denunciation of a parent for the wilful manufacture of shoddily dangerous wartime product.

Work divides the two sides of the Atlantic. The cultures of Europe use the fruits of work to enhance personal goods in the form of increased holiday periods and paid parental leave of absence. The USA does neither. In art the fiction-making of Britain regularly uses the workplace for comedy or satire. There is no “I’m all right, Jack” in America. Work is the centre of identity in a society of high mobility and work is the backbone for Miller’s best drama. When it is not- as in “After the Fall”- the drama is less compelling. But work is also a place for unease, creating tension between obligation to community and that to family. In his late play “the Last Yankee” Miller gave his lead character the dignity but status loss of a craft skill. A member of a Brahmin family works as a carpenter on the making of a church altar.

The Keller family are a way down the social pecking order but raised up by the second world war. That period sank Britain into indebtedness but doubled the national wealth of America. A high intelligence is common at the work in Mold. The household’s economic fragility is all there in Mark Bailey’s design. It is not quite the back porch that is endemic in Edward Hopper or American film. This wooden furniture was never the work of the town’s best carpenter and it subtly lacks the sheen of a last clean coat of paint. The broken apple tree is Miller’s nod to Ibsen but it has its mirror in the house imagined by Bailey as a structure of disaggregated parts.

This communication of a deep intelligence extends to the costume design in Kate Wasserberg’s production, a return to a large cast classic play in a break from the heroic making of Cardiff’s youngest venue. Miller’s stage directions take a novelistic approach in the description of character. Joe Keller himself gets a paragraph of psychological detail. The production converts this into a sharp visual depiction. Ian Burfield is in check shirt and braces that haul on hitched-high trousers. He is blue-collar man at rest, an off-duty look that belies his ownership of a nearby engineering plant operating at full throttle.

Catrin Aaron’s Ann, fresh from New York City, is first in high-waisted silk, then in lace. If it does not work out with the Kellers she might easily be mixing it with the Don Drapers. Matthew Bulgo brings a gust of energy in his act two entry as avenging angel George Deever. With a five o’clock shadow from an arduous day’s travel his black double-breasted suit, weighing as heavily as his newly acquired revelation, is emblem for the ascent from factory to professional status.

Fathers and brothers are a regular that distinguish the best of Miller. “All My Sons” is marked out by the presence of both a father and a son, in the form of gaoled father Steve and lost pilot Larry, but who are both absent from the stage. Simon Holland Roberts is a regular on stages in Wales. He was in Aristophanes with Northern Broadsides when that company played in Wales, one of several top-notchers who no longer do so. This last winter he was an exuberant gravedigger in Terry Hands’ swansong “Hamlet.” Living brother Chris is probably his biggest part on the Clwyd stage, performed with a trenchant subtlety. He starts as the vaguely unsatisfied younger sibling, a man who reads book reviews avidly but never a book. He delivers his speech of wartime memory while sitting tranquilly on the porch step. When he moves to being the carrier of hardly bearable emotion his voice drops to a snarl of hostility.

Theatre has a spotty record at best in its roll call of parts for women, the record of Wales’ new writing for women being particularly dismal. (“Iphigenia in Splott” is something of an overdue wake-up call.) “All My Sons” provides a part for Siân Howard as Kate that calls for an adept peeling of potatoes on stage but that is just one part of it. It also demands a climactic volume and power that she rises to superbly.

“After My Sons” is a multi-faceted piece of dramatic granite. It took two and a half years in the writing to get right and it shows. It is filled with internal cross echoes and has that Miller trademark, the ability to craft a line that has a vernacular ring to it but expresses a piercing generality. From “the Price”: “the big decision is always the one you don’t realise you’re making- until the results come flooding in.” From “Resurrection Blues” “the hall of the imagination is where we usually live.” In “All My Sons” Chris says “I need to build something I can give myself to.” Christian Patterson’s Dr Baylis has his heart in medical research but his financial interest elsewhere. “Now I live in the usual darkness” he says with a melancholic honesty “I can’t find myself.”

The programme features a shot from the 1947 production at New York City’s Coronet Theatre, Karl Malden’s George gripping a white picket fence. Even with Elia Kazan in the director’s chair the playwright had anxieties whether it would succeed. Then as now the playwright's life was one of jolting insecurity. The play started taking two thousand dollars a week. The writer carried on working in a factory that made boxes, his pay forty cents an hour.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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