Sunday, June 13, 2010

For the second time within a month I have revisited one of the four classic early works of Arthur Miller, his Tony award-winning breakthrough play ALL MY SONS at the Apollo.
Howard Davies has revived his National Theatre production from 2000, this time the Keller home and verdant garden transplanted from the Cottesloe's traverse stage to the proscenium stage of the Apollo.

The show again bears the hallmarks of Howard Davies' best work: an unhurried, clear-eyed production which frames the text perfectly, a harmony of performance, set, lighting & score and a unity of committed performance from the company.The original production featured a quartet of memorable performances - James Hazeldine, Julie Walters, Ben Daniels, Catherine McCormack - and while the present company are all fine, this new production is dominated by the devastating performances of the two leads, David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker.

Davies has retained his invented prelude to the play where we see Kate's night-time witnessing of the tree planted in her missing son's memory snapped in two by a violent storm and, in this production in particular, it helps to put the audience on edge from the start as the play otherwise starts fairly uneventfully introducing us to the Keller family and their immediate neighbours.We follow the events of a summer Sunday in 1946 in small-town America. Joe Keller is a contented man, a local businessman doing well, admired by his younger neighbours and his son Chris who works with him. His and Chris' only concern is Joe's wife Kate who, while loving, has been distracted by the disappearance three years ago of her other son Larry who went missing in action in the far east. She is further on edge at Chris' secret invitation to Larry's girlfriend Ann Deever to visit them from NY.

Ann's presence has other implications for the Kellers as it is revealed that her father was Joe's business partner in a munitions factory and is in prison for causing the deaths of 21 pilots by knowingly shipping out faulty parts, an action for which Joe was exonerated in court by being off ill when it happened. Her admission to Kate that she is no longer waiting for Larry's return signals to both the parents that Chris' real intention inviting her there is to propose. However it's the appearance of Ann's brother George that brings down the house of cards that is Joe Keller's life.As I've said Davies elicits telling performances from the supporting cast, each imbuing their roles with an inner life. Tony Vaughan-Lawlor and Olivia Darnley are fine as the young neighbours, particularly Darnley in the scene where Daniel Lapaine's George meets her again and you get a sense of their earlier romance, lost by the intervention of the war.

Steven Elder and Claire Hackett also bring great heft to their roles as the Bayliss' who moved into the Deever house after Ann and George's father went to prison. They both stood out in each of their solo turns - Elder where he ruminates on the life he could have had and Hackett, looking not unlike Kathleen Turner, when she tells Ann exactly what she thinks of the idealistic Chris.While I liked Stephen Campbell Moore and Jemima Rooper as Chris and Ann, I felt they didn't quite eclipse the performances of Ben Daniels and Catherine McCormack in Davies' original production, particularly Rooper who couldn't quite get Ann's desperation - it didn't ring true when she begged Kate not to throw her out as she had nowhere to go. Still they did both give very touching performances.

Nothing however could match the performances of the leads.It doesn't hurt the Box Office of course that Suchet and Wanamaker are as well known to the general public for their television roles as much as their theatre work but here they transcend such concerns and both give performances of a rare intensity.

David Suchet is an actor that doesn't always engage me but as Joe Keller he gives what I think is his best stage performance. From the start his casual underplaying makes you believe Joe's idea of himself as a man trusted and a pillar of his community but as the action continues along the lines of classic Greek drama, this hubris is brought low when the Furies of his past actions catch up with him. Suchet's sheer physicality was astonishing - when first seen he is expansive and genial, safe literally in his own back yard, but when confronted by George Deevor he changes into a sharp business suit and appears more canny and alert but when his culpability is finally revealed, he seemed to collapse in on himself. In a masterful piece of physical acting, when Joe reads the damning final letter from his missing son, you could almost see his life ebbing away from him as the words sunk in. His delivery as well was faultless, in the opening scene his ability to project while still speaking in a conversational tone showed up Vaughan-Lawlor and Elder who were saying their lines In Their Best Theatrical Voices.

Suchet was matched stride-for-stride by Zoe Wanamaker as Kate. With no attempt to play for audience sympathy, she gave a multi-layered performance of a conflicted woman whose life is ultimately revealed to have been built on a lie.

Kate's wary humour, her desperate belief in her son's survival, her barely-disguised distrust of Ann and her lioness-like protection of Joe were woven together to give an outstanding performance.

Like Suchet, she seemed to live in the moment at all times, never dropping her concentration level which made her a hypnotic presence on the stage. None more so than when Kate unthinkingly blurts out an inconsequential remark which in an instant reveals the lie the Kellers have hidden. It was a mark of the audience's involvement in the action that when she said it there was an audible collective gasp of breath!

The production is again helped immeasurably by William Dudley's detailed set of the Keller's back porch and garden which seems to get more claustrophobic as the action progresses, and Mark Henderson's lighting especially in Act II when the characters are slowly bathed in a blood-red sunset as the truth behind the deaths of the 21 pilots is revealed.
This production also made me realise how much of a companion piece ALL MY SONS is to Miller's DEATH OF A SALEMAN in the similar descents of Joe Keller and Willy Loman through their adherence to the work ethic which propels their own American Dreams. In a world where soldiers are killed due to faulty equipment and the ideals of capitalism are questioned, as with the best of Miller's work, ALL MY SONS is as relevant today as it was in 1946.


Owen said...

You've captured the play perfectly - a pleasure to read!

chrisv said...

Ooo thank you!