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Posts Tagged ‘Death of a Salesman’

There’s something astonishing and wonderful about having two Arthur Miller classics revived at the same time at theatres on the same street less than 200 meters apart, at the Old and Young Vic’s. They were first staged two years apart, this being his first big hit 72 years ago. I’ve seen a number of great revivals over the years and this one is up there with the best. Seeing it sixteen hours after I’d left Death os a Salesman made me think how alike they are, though this is entirely naturalistic, without flashbacks and imaginary scenes. As productions, they are very different, Jeremy Herrin taking his lead from this naturalism and opting for a more conventional take and a realistic setting. Both however are absolutely unmissable.

It’s just after the end of the Second World War and only one of Joe & Kate Keller’s two sons have returned. Older son Larry is still missing in action, his mother convinced he’s still alive, whilst most think he’s dead. Younger son Chris has survivors guilt, though Larry’s girlfriend Ann is visiting and he is set on proposing marriage, despite his mother’s conviction. Chris works in his dad’s engineering business, which sold faulty parts to the military, resulting in deaths. His father’s business partner Steve Deever, Ann’s dad, took the rap and went to prison, though many think Joe is really to blame.

It’s a surprise that Broadway could stomach this story just two years after the war ended, but they did, and it ran for almost a year and was made into a film just one year later. It’s timeless, as Miller often is, with corporate ethics as much of an issue today, but it’s a family tragedy, so its as much about the complex relationships within and between the Keller’s and the Deever’s. Max Jones’ uber-realistic design places a suburban home and garden on the Old Vic stage in a way that draws you in, seemingly shrinking this big theatre, well at least from the stalls.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is impeccable, building the tension slowly, taking hold of you. As I was across the road the night before, I was in awe of the acting talent on stage. Bill Pullman’s performance as Joe has a naturalism that makes you forget he’s acting. Sally Field is superb as Kate, holding on to hope her son is alive and belief in her husband’s innocence. Colin Morgan navigates Chris’ complex emotional journey brilliantly. This appears to be Jenna Coleman’s stage debut, and an auspicious one it is too. In an excellent supporting cast, I very much admired Oliver Johnstone as George Deever and Sule Rimi and neighbour Dr Jim Bayliss.

How lucky we are to have two outstanding revivals of these modern classics at the same time. The informal Miller fest becomes a Miller feast on The Cut!

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I vividly remember being at the UK premiere of this play 16 years ago. At the end, lead actor Henry Goodman pointed to a man a few rows behind me and the audience rose to its feet to give Arthur Miller a standing ovation.

Not everyone agreed (nothing new there, then) but I thought it was his best play in the 40 years since a row of four classics – All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible & A View From A Bridge – between 1947 and 1955. We’ve seen a lot of these four since, but not Broken Glass. The National hosted the UK premiere, but again it’s a fringe venue – the Tricycle – that gives us a second look.

Set in 1938 in New York, Sylvia Gellburg is mysteriously paralysed. The initial diagnosis is hysterical paralysis, a reaction to events in Nazi Germany, but as the play unfolds the relationship with, and behaviour of, her husband comes into the frame. She abandoned her business career, her sex life is unfulfilled, her husband possesses her.

Phillip Gellburg is one of the most complex characters Miller wrote – proud to be ‘the only Jew’ in his company with his son heading to be ‘the only Jew’ army General in a way that is distancing himself, even denying, his heritage. At the same time, he sees anti-Semitism when it might not even be there and is racked with feelings of inadequacy, persecution and inferiority complexes and paranoia.

Anthony Sher is mesmerizing, he IS Phillip Gellburg, and as the play unfolds his character becomes more exposed and develops emotional depth. Sylvia Gellberg is a tough role, changing significantly between the first and second acts. Playing a little older than her age, Lucy Cohu really pulls it off. The third key character, Dr Harry Hyman, who is fascinated by the case and attracted to his patient, sees Nigel Lindsay cast against type and more than a match for Sher and Cohu. These are fine performances indeed.

I’m not very familiar with director Iqbal Khan’s work, but I’ll make sure I am in the future, for this is a very intelligent production, deeply moving but without descending into sentimentality. Mike Britton has designed an impressionistic space which allows the drama to breath and the onstage cello playing of Laura Moody maintains the tension between scenes.

This play was followed by two disappointing late works – Mr Peter’s Connections and Resurrection Blues – and a third play, Finishing the Picture, which we haven’t seen here. Looking back now, it is clear that it was the last great work of a giant of theatre and seeing it again was as thrilling as seeing it for the first time.

Yet another triumph for the regularly triumphant and completely indispensable Tricycle!

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