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Tag Archives: Howard Davies

All My Sons, Apollo Theatre, London

All My Sons was Arthur Miller’s first popular success as a playwright, and while it’s a lesser work than Death of a Saleman or the best of his 1950s plays, there’s something especially moving about its unvarnished mixture of innocence and corruption, socio-political comment and open-hearted ideas of the Good Life.  If it lacks the conviction of some of the later work (if it feels a bit programmatically tragic), it has its own sort of conviction: that of sincerity and of a young writer discovering what he can do.

All My Sons takes place on a single day in 1946, in the backyard of the Keller family in an unnamed American town.  The Kellers have had an interesting war.  Both sons served overseas, but only the elder, Chris, returned.  The younger, Larry, was in the US Air Force and disappeared on an apparently routine flight.  Since no body was found, mother Kate holds fiercely to the hope that Larry is still alive.  So when Chris invites Larry’s childhood sweetheart, Ann, back to the family home with the intention of proposing to her, Kate is intent on stopping it.

Presiding over all of this – or rather, ducking in and out of responsibility as it suits him – is paterfamilias Joe.  Of all the Kellers, his war was perhaps the most interesting.  The owner and manager of a manufacturing plant, he is rebuilding and diversifying his business after a wartime scandal: cylinders his plant produced for the USAF malfunctioned, killing 21 American pilots.  Joe was briefly jailed for this but cleared on appeal, with his partner and neighbour Steve Deever taking the fall.  Steve Deever is still in jail, and Chris’s intended Ann is his daughter.

Is this maybe a bit much freight for one play, particularly one told in strict chronology using only a single location?  And isn’t the looming implication – that Joe’s malfunctioning airplane cylinders might have killed his own son – just a little bit too looming?  Yes and yes.  But this is where Miller’s particular strain of sincerity and yearning pays dividends: he finds it genuinely tragic that manned flight (that great symbol of American aspiration) should have become the engine of mass death, and that mass death should in turn become the engine of thoughtless profit and industrial expansion.  If this isn’t subtle, it is felt with unusual heat, and that heat communicates itself throughout the play.

The yearning tone is reinforced in this production by a near peerless cast, anchored by David Suchet as Joe, Stephen Campbell Moore as Chris, and in particular by Zoe Wanamaker as Kate.  Realising that this is a leading female role of rare scope and wit, Wanamaker is just terrific.  Where some of the other characters are maybe a little too transparent, Wanamaker keeps you guessing as to whether Kate is genuinely mad or whether her apparent madness is the cloak under which she can tell herself (and everyone else) the truth.  In this company, Jemima Rooper as Ann is the only weak link.  Where everyone else seems able to do wonders with a single syllable, Rooper distinguishes herself by line readings that would disgrace a Tannoy announcer.

The current run at the Apollo Theatre is directed by Howard Davies, reprising his London production of ten years ago.  Miller’s best plays are such expert demonstrations of stagecraft that one wonders how much directing actually needs to be done, but the rare effects and music here are very well handled and of a piece with the whole work.  When the play itself falters (the crammed final act) there’s little enough Davies can do about it, and I suspect there was little he could do either about The Apollo itself: the West End’s nastiest and most vertiginous theatre, physically unworthy of its recent reputation as one of London’s most daring.

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Posted by on September 6, 2010 in Theatre

 

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The White Guard, National Theatre

On paper, The White Guard looks like a bit of a slog: a rarely performed 1926 Russian play about the chaotic post-revolutionary civil war in the Ukraine, with only one woman among its cast of twenty two, does not sound like the basis for a terrific night out. In practice, happily, it plays a little differently and provides an engrossing, moving and unexpectedly hilarious production.

The play is firmly in the realist manner and it’s a tribute to Mikhail Bulgakov’s technical skills as a playwright that despite having been written not long after the events it describes the play assumes almost nothing in the way of prior knowledge but articulates and clarifies a very complicated conflict without ever being tediously expository. It’s hard to say how much help Andrew Upton has invisibly provided in his new translation, but what’s certain is that the language and dramatic rhythms of the text feel utterly modern; it would be easy to believe this is a prestigious premiere rather than a revival.

The action begins in a large flat in Kiev in late 1918 and the thread of the story is woven around its inhabitants, the Turbins. Their position as slightly shabby Ukranian aristocracy ensures that the male members of the family are stalwarts of the White Guard, the rump of the Russian army upholding the Tsarist cause against the dual opposition forces of the Bolshevik revolutionaries and a rising Ukranian Nationalist Army. As the snow falls outside the windows (a charming piece of staging), rumours begin to spread of the withdrawal of the German support for the White Guard and the position begins to appear more and more hopeless.

With the play situated so precisely in a specific political and historical context, director Howard Davies has eschewed any temptation to try to universalise the production and has gone instead for an extraordinary verisimilitude, aided by a series of huge and beautifully detailed sets by Bunny Christie (which nonetheless pull some inventive surprises, with one particular scene transition which is as delightful as it is dramatically evocative). The firm grounding of the staging is matched by the acting, which is intimate and realistic to match the writing; the cast – led most memorably by Justine Mitchell, as the emotional heart of the Turbin family, and Conleth Hill as a wry, portly roué who can’t quite believe he’s become a soldier – create a series of beautifully human portraits. Pip Carter, who’s becoming almost as much of a Lyttleton regular as Adrian Scarborough or Oliver Ford Davies, is particularly effective as a student with little knack for timing. The family are strongly and warmly established in a long domestic opening sequence, and are then flung off into a world which becomes more absurd as it expands. The easy sitcom becomes broader and more savage as it’s stained with farce and tragedy.

The balancing of the political and the domestic, the vicious and the generous, increasingly asserts itself as the purpose of the play. We’re shown that even in as firmly real an environment as the apartments and palaces of Kiev, the structures of government and society are evanescent and cease to exist as soon as there’s no-one left who can be bothered to believe in them. The characters we’re invited to despise are those who continue to insist that history is theirs for the writing; the ones we celebrate are those who maintain their humanity in the face of a collapsed world.

It’s a wonderful production of a fascinating play; it’s more than enough to make one grateful once again for existence of the National Theatre, since it’s very difficult to think of anywhere else in the country which could mount such a lavish, thoughtful production of a play which doesn’t have obvious commercial appeal – but which nonetheless deserves to find an audience.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2010 in Theatre

 

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