It is fifty years since this still underrated Arthur Miller play was first produced in New York. This play is far less of an obvious symbolic engagement with larger American themes than many of this writer’s plays of the 1950s and 1960s and perhaps has suffered for that reason. Its focus is on the family and the consequences down the years for decisions taken in youth. There are epic dimensions for certain but on a general scale, not a narrowly political or national one. The issues go beyond the fortunes of the American Dream and focus above all on the extent to which ‘we invent ourselves in order to wipe out what we know’.
Wyndham’s is a tiny jewel-box of a theatre, serving to intensify the intimacy of this play and the impact of the looming, even intimidating, set by Simon Higlett which plays an integral part in the success of the evening. We enter looking at the attic of a New York brownstone cluttered and stacked with furniture of every kind. But it as much a phantasmagoria of furniture as anything realistic, with one side of steeply pitched ceiling flaring out with a jumbled accumulation of items all looming out over the stage. What light there is comes from two small dirty windows, and dust and detritus have settled over everything: this is the whole contents of a house crammed into the top floor and then abandoned, fixed in time with hardly any space for visitors to thread a path through.
The unsettling milieu sets the tone for a troubling play that emerges from an apparently trivial pretext. Victor Franz (Brendan Coyle), a policeman near retirement and his near-alcoholic wife Esther (Sara Stewart) have agreed to meet a furniture appraiser, Gregory Solomon (David Suchet) to see what they can get for the contents of the family home, now scheduled for demolition. The first act flatters to deceive through some of Miller’s finest comic writing focused on the larger-than-life character of Solomon, based on Miller’s own father. Not only does Solomon turn out to be far more than an elderly Jewish expert in antiques, but he has so many layers that only the most skilful and charismatic of actors can capture his infinite variety. Suchet is fully equal to the challenge in a portrayal of loving care and detail full of verbal finesse and physical grace notes that give us everything from clowning, through to wily guile, and a lovable, affirming embrace of life in all its absurdities.
This character by the end of the first half is in danger of taking over the whole play, and in the much darker (and longer) second half, he is much less visible, restricted to commentaries in the manner of the chorus on the deceptions and self-deceptions of the other characters. Having used the first half deftly to accumulate details of character and back-history, Miller plunges us in the second half into a very bleak pay-off, in which we gradually come to see and understand the reasons why all this furniture and these characters have ended up where are. In particular, we come to appreciate the multiple ways in which the title of the play should be understood. Not only does everyone and everything have a price which is best seen as a subjective ‘viewpoint’, but all the characters struggle vainly to escape the price that each has paid for decisions taken consciously or unconsciously over thirty years before. As so often in Miller the crux of the matter lies in a conflict between a father, two sons and two brothers. But here the patriarch is absent and the drama is played out in the seething resentments of the sons left behind, and the wife of one who is an angry but largely impotent spectator. The origin of all the difficulties lies in the economic mayhem and destruction of the Great Depression, the route out of which has taken the brothers on two different journeys, with different but similarly damaging costs.
It is important that neither brother is portrayed in black or white terms and it is greatly to the credit both of the director and the actors that the fine-grained performances by Brendan Coyle and Adrian Lukis (as his younger, rivalrous and more successful sibling, Walter) find many shades of passion, self-reproach and internal disconnect in these damaged individuals. Sara Stewart has less to work within a role that remains a little under-written despite its obvious connections, physical and emotional to Miller’s former wife, Marilyn Monroe. But overall this is fine ensemble acting which brings the best out of all concerned, and you can tell that everyone is not just on a song but enjoying the whole experience.
All of the roles offer very particular and taxing demands, which this cast mostly meets admirably, both as individuals and in their interactive synergy. The same goes for the creative team whose combined attention to detail in providing plausible and authentic sounds, lighting and costume serve to do full justice to one of Miller’s most thought-provoking and lasting achievements.
- By Arthur Miller
- Director: Jonathan Church
- Photographs by Nobby Clark
- Cast: Brendan Coyle, Adrian Lukis, Sara Stewart, David Suchet
- Wyndham’s Theatre
- Until 27 April 2019
- Time: 19:30, 2 hrs 40 mins (including interval)