Sydney Theatre Company and UBS present, ALL MY SONS, by Arthur Miller, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay, 4 June - 9 July, 2016.
This Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production is the second presentation of the great Arthur Miller's play, ALL MY SONS, last seen in Sydney two years ago. The last was seen as the premiere play production for the Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the then new Eternity Theatre, Directed by Iain Sinclair.
The pertinence of this play dealing with the challenges of a man and the ethical decisions that he may have to make between his ideals and the pragmatics of business, in this instance, in the pursuit of the American Dream, in a culture driven by the necessities of the practice of Capitalism, is always with us. In Sydney the demands of Development (Big Business - Government), under the three word slogan of Innovation and Progress ("Jobs and Growth") is at the centre of concerns for some of the electorate as the Federal Election looms upon us and is part of a noisy 'revolution' from individuals and ordinary families in the suburbs. Stella Adler, the actress and well known teacher, once said that the great theme of ALL MY SONS was 'business v's civilisation'. It is an irony, to note, that the sponsor with the Sydney Theatre Company for this production of Mr Miller's warning, concerning the de-humnaisation of the ordinary citizen in the face of the necessities of capitalism is UBS (The United Bank of Switzerland) - a finance company, a bank! - and is been presented in the Roslyn PACKER Theatre - the family developers of Barangaroo! The pertinence of the issues at the centre of this play for the STC and its present Board may/must be interesting to extrapolate upon and contemplate when reviewing the recent loss of Jonathan Church, after only a 7 month occupation of his contract, and especially when reviewing the reasons, officially given by that Board, and otherwise, reported! It is interesting to note that according to the FBI file on Miller, ALL MY SONS was "party-line propaganda", and within a decade Miller was to be called to face the House Un-Amarican Activities Committee (HUAC), under the Direction of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Miller was a thorn in the flesh of the status quo of business and government, it seems (and he - that 'pinko' had married America's sweetheart, Marilyn Monroe, of course.
ALL MY SONS was written by Arthur Miller in 1947, and was, as far as he was concerned, a last-ditch effort to establish himself as a professional New York playwright. In 1943, he had won the Theatre Guild National Award for his, THE MAN WHO HAD ALL THE LUCK, but it had closed after only four performances on its Broadway production.
In Enoch Brater's book: A PLAYWRIGHT'S LIFE AND WORK, we can read:
"I wanted to bring life of the streets into the theatre", the playwright noted, 'so you could tell it to a man on a train and he would get it.' Set in the late 1940's, in pre-suburban and pre-luxurious America, when there were no fences, the play appeared at the very moment when the country, victorious in war after defeating fascism in Europe and imperialism in Japan, was 'feeling good about itself.' The play refused to let its audience forget the ugly side of recent events it seemed all to willing to 'sweep under the rug'. Despite the play's critical acclaim, the reaction to ALL MY SONS, Miller remembers, 'was mostly ferocious'. ... In his introduction to the COLLECTED PLAYS, published in 1957, Miller wrote that 'the spectacle of human sacrifice in contrast with aggrandisement is a sharp and heartbreaking one.' During World War II 'war-profiteering wasn't meant to be going on,' Miller said. 'Everyone knew it was going on, but it wasn't supposed to be happening.' In ALL MY SONS, however, to, use one of the playwright's favourite phrases, 'the chickens come home to roost' After reading a newspaper article giving an account of the Wright Aeronautics Corporation of Ohio placing "Passed" tags on defective plane engines after bribing corrupt army inspectors, and burdened with the presence of his brother Kermit, a returned war veteran, struggling with the consequences of participating in the theatre of war, and observing the corruption of his own country on his return, Miller said "The truth was blinding".
The Keller family of ALL MY SONS, have been living a lie, and Miller used the conventions of the family play, the recognisable domestic framework, with all the aspirations of home, hearth, marriage, family and neighbourhood, to study the much wider universe of the 'family of man'. Chris Keller, the son, in uncovering the domestic tragedy of the death of his brother in a war time flying incident, also uncovers his father's culpability, through economic greed and deceit, in the death of 22 pilots in Southeast Asia, who were, Joe Keller comes to admit, in fact all of his sons, too. Then, too, further guilt is revealed in the heinous avoidance of his crime, when Joe Keller is shown to have allowed a family friend and neighbour to take the major responsibility for the action. An American family unwinds and explodes with gunshot, after responsibility is accepted.
Miller's task to write a play domestic in scale, both anecdotal and particular, and yet one that has wider symbolism, and even mythic scope, is incorporated within the literary inspiration of Miller's dramaturgical 'loves': the plays of Ibsen and the Greek tragedies. As in Ibsen the characters in this play have already made a pact with their uneasy past, the major events have already taken place and we get to watch the relentless unfolding of the consequences of the choices that the characters have already made, just as we have, once, watched the unfolding of the consequences of events past on the family of Oedipus Rex - messengers, letters and all!
John Howard presents Joe Keller, as a figure already declining and slipping into a benign kind of second childhood, his lumbering interaction with the local child of the neighbourhood cluing us - just like all 'robber barons' of industry, trying to retrieve their reputations with late actions of, what to them are, relatively, kind trivialities - who with the gentle but growing forceful confrontation from his returned war-hero son, Chris, reveals his true nature, when cornered with truths, a true nature that has the instinctive reflex force of a ruthless capitalist 'Citizen Kane', that concludes in suicide as his only possible escape - in this case, unlike the Ibsen Hedda Gabler suicide, one of little honour but true to his moral compass, one of emblematic cowardice and expediency.
The two figures that bring the shadow of truth to the backyard of this family, Chris Keller (Chris Ryan) and Anne Deever (Eryn Jean Norville), who ultimately force the paying of 'dues' for past actions are generally revealed here with some emotional intensities, although, the objective clarity of the construct of Miller's characters' actions are sometimes alarmingly buried in the subjective emotional behaviours of the two actors, and often the technical execution of the great moments are mismanaged or misjudged by these two artists, who seem to move about the generous space of this Design, under the permission of the Director Kip Williams, too distractedly, when standing their ground to deal with the moment - the emotional and intellectual point of Miller's writing - would have created an impact of far greater import. This is true of the vocal work as well, which in the case of Mr Ryan is, mostly, in a narrow vocal range choice (and, usually shouted) - the emotions getting the better of his expression for affect (odd, knowing of his musical training) and causing strain, which, unfortunately, is obvious, too, in the 'cracked' sound of Ms Norville in her crucial moments. The effect of the word-sounds from these two actors results in too much emotional demonstration and not quite enough intellectual rigour in importing Miller's pivotal points. I did admire, generally - generally - both performances, especially Mr Ryan's, that seemed to have let go of his need to entertain his audience which I had noticed, gratingly, in much of his recent offers. (THE PRESENT, CYRANO DE BERGERAC)
In a relatively small role, that of George Deever, who carries, dramaturgically, the catalyst force , function, of the revealer of the malignant central truths of the Keller family, Josh McConville, arrives in the middle act with all the coiled ferocity of moral and personal injury with an energy of technical bravura harnessing the cyclonic emotions of his character within the container of Miller's writing, the dreadful backstory of his family's tragedy, that of his father's fate at the hands of Joe. This is a great performance, making George's raw and moral outrage palpable, and demands empathetic endowments from his audience, for George, and his family, without demonstrating one iota over the necessary emotional content. This actor's truthful personalisation of emotion being used to tell the Miller story without gratuitous or excessive demonstration of the emotional state of the character. An object lesson of what I believe is good craft acting.
The best work, however, comes from Robyn Nevin, as the self-deceiving and emotional flagellant, Kate Keller. This role demands an emotional construct of gradual revelation and the intellectual control the actor must technically manage needs to be forensic and yet real. Ms Nevin from her first entrance, builds in the clues, physical and vocal, to allow us to be subsumed into the tempest of Kate's dilemmas. Ms Nevin begins modestly but adds layer after layer, from speech to speech, scene to scene, to create a great journey of a truly tragic figure - a contemporary Jocasta, trapped in the 'rules' and expectancies of her time. A good woman leading the life she was given to live as best she can while facing off 'evils' of social corruption that have invaded her love life and her family life, the life of an American family - through the time of the Great Depression, a War, and now a prosperous Peace, escorted through it by a 'bloody'-minded, ruthless moral coward whom she has loved, who has provided for her the benefits of the American Dream, of capitalism, at the cost of her own great moral turpitude and exposed personal cowardice, that has resulted in the loss of the lives of other mother's sons. The letter from her own son, the terrible consequence of her own inaction, for those other mothers' sons, and settling for God and superstitious horoscopes to act as her surrogate gauge for personal responsibility, is fate demanding reciprocation writ large for her own abrogation of conflict and confrontation - she took the easy path, closed her eyes and staggered on, and now, must pay. Her tragedy is echoed in the coming grief of Linda in Miller's next play DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Arthur Miller loved his long-suffering mother - it is writ large in all of his great works.
Anita Hegh (Sue Bayliss), Bert Labonte (Dr Jim Bayliss), John Leary (Frank Lubey), Contessa Treffone (Lydia Lubey) and young Toby Challenor (Burt) play the neighbours, painting in a 'chorus' of information about the ordinariness and banal needs of man in the 'everydayness' of a comatose society. All are clear, clean and informative, given a few occasions to give a comic relief to sometimes help relieve the weighty tone of the tragedy of the main event of the family Keller and Deever.
This is a clear and controlled production by Kip Williams, mostly without his usual gratuitous installation-art conceits – although he can't quite quell his authorial urges and still wants to remind us that he is there to impress us with visual imagery and dramatic action. Hence, Set Designer, Alice Babidge, has given us a cut-out, flat surface, black-board house with cut-out window shaped holes looking into a sparsely decorated interior. We are faced then with, essentially, a black background wall with small warm coloured holes, a copious large black floor and stylised black wing walls with swinging black doors for exits, that give us, visually, a world of nothing - a void. It is, then, this void, I presume, meant to be interpreted as a metaphor!? There is even a set of stairs across the entire front of the stage down to the audience floor level, that simply break the fourth wall, that does not acquire much meaning - Mr Williams even has the little boy, Burt, exit through the auditorium that adds no great dramaturgical meaning or benefit to his storytelling - no one else does - it seems incongruous and an unnecessary costing to budget.
It occurred to me as I sat there that this Design was really only a black version of Ms Babidge's, set solution to the THE PRESENT, which was grey. It, also, occurred to me that this was the theatre where the Stepppenwolf AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, was guested by the STC, that gave us a set, a house, that gave the audience a world to understand the play by - that there was a world to support the play and develop its impact. The dramatic power of this ALL My SONS, I reckon, is diminished by the abstracted visual conceit of the Designer and Director. Worse, Ms Nevin's great opportunities in the final moments of the play are undermined by the commanded Directorial 'pyrotechnicals' of raising the facades of his set solution to bring on stage the image of the suicide, Joe Keller, slumped in a chair on a skeletal back railed platform at the top of the revealed house stairs. It felt almost as sacrilegious as Simon Stone's constructed death of Willy Loman in his production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN - ignoring the Greek (Miller's) tradition of leaving the 'carnage' off-stage - had Willy Loman gassing himself in his car, instead of driving at speed into a wall - and worse, it reminded me that Mr Stone had also, cut Linda's famous grave side scene - which I felt Mr Williams had done, to a lesser extent, but with the same effect, to Ms Nevin's last moments, as Kate, in this production of ALL MY SONS, with the distracting of focus, by raising of the walls of his house Design. Directorial gratuitousness, and at the least, as well, ungracious care about the meticulous work of Ms Nevin and Mr Miller.
The costumes by Ms Babidge, are again her usual emblematic and economic choices, with a lot of the action bare-footed (metaphoric, I guess), with wigs that seemed to be caricatures of a fashion/period statement . The Lighting by Nick Schlieper is 'epic-abstract' in Design, tending to darkness. The score by Max Lyandvert, relatively, sparse, but effective, resultantly.
ALL MY SONS is a lesser play in construction and logics, when compared to the following canon of Arthur Miller's coming repertoire. It is, and always has been, for me, an example of a play of a great playwright in apprentice mode. DEATH OF A SALESMAN is soon to follow. The growth in expertness is astonishing. This is not to undermine the emotional power of this play as writ, for it is this production's greatest asset, that, and the acting commitments from this cast. The Darlinghurst Theatre production does not pale under the STC contribution to the play's reputation. They were both tremendous emotional tales - the source material and the skill of the writer triumphed on both occasions.This writer justifies my belief that in the performing arts of all genres the writing is the foundation and guarantee of quality production. The writer is GOD. In the beginning was the Word, and our job is to make that Word flesh.
- Enoch Brater. - 2005 - A PLAYWRIGHT'S LIFE AND WORK - Thomas & Hudson..
- Christopher Bigsby - 1990 - ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY - Methuen Drama.
- Christopher Bigsby - 2008 - ARTHUR MILLER - Wiedenfeld & Nicholson.