Review: All My Sons ~ theatre notes

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Review: All My Sons

All My Sons by Arthur Miller, directed by Kate Cherry. Designed by Richard Roberts, lighting by Jon Buswell, composer Peter Farnan. With Janet Andrewartha, Melinda Butel, Matt Dyktynski, Luke Elliot, Paul English, Yesse Spence, John Stanton, Rebekah Stone, Teague Rook and Louis Corbett/Liam Duxbury or Gianluca Toscano. Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse @ Victorian Arts Centre until March 31.

Arthur Miller is the uber-craftsman of 20th century American theatre. He illustrates to an exemplary degree why the word "wright", which allies itself with the skilled trades - wheelwright, shipwright - should have attached itself to "playwright". Miller's best plays are beautiful machines, moving with the slick, remorseless efficiency of oiled steel; when he speaks of his craft, it is with the lyricism of a mechanic. That his play were machines designed to invoke feeling makes this no less true.

Written in 1947, All My Sons was his first major play. And it's here that Miller maps out the artistic territory that he was to explore afterwards in plays like Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and View From a Bridge. In All My Sons, Miller embraced, as he put it, a desire to "write rationally", to enact the motion of "cause and effect, hard action, facts, the geometry of relationships". He wished, he explains rather disingenuously, to make a play "as untheatrical as far as was possible nothing was to interfere with its artlessness".

Let me tell you, there is nothing artless in this play. Nor, as it happens, untheatrical. Miller welds the emotional force of Aeschylus to the naturalism of Ibsen (with a dash of Chekhovian melodrama) and forges them anew in the vernacular of mid-20th century America. All My Sons remains, like all Miller's work, very much a play of its time and place, a play that at once manifests the optimistic post-War belief in American progress, and fiercely critiques its darker side. If it weren't so well-written, it would now, for all the resonance of its themes of corporate war profiteering, seem rather quaint; but the fact remains that it is as well-written as it is, and the damn thing goes like a train.

Miller observes all the classic verities of tragic form: All My Sons begins as close to the end of the story as possible, and sedulously observes unity of time, place and action. The whole play takes place over the space of a day in a backyard that epitomises the dream of American affluence - a wide green lawn surrounded by poplars, the porch of a large house, comfortable outdoor furniture.

It's the home of a successful businessman and family man, Joe Keller (John Stanton), and at first offers us a scene of mundane peace: it is early Sunday morning, and Joe is reading the want ads, chatting idly with his neighbour Dr Jim Bayliss (Paul English). Only one thing breaks the illusion of suburban perfection: a young apple tree, broken near its base, lies across the grass. It's the first of many subtle Biblical resonances that underlie the play: the broken Tree of Knowledge, the Abrahamic sacrifice of sons, the expulsion from Eden.

We find out, through conversation that seems only casual and incidental, that the tree was planted for Joe's son, Larry, a fighter pilot reported missing in action three years before. His mother Kate (Janet Andrewartha) has never accepted that Larry is dead. And now Larry's former girlfriend, Ann Deever (Yesse Spence) is coming to stay, invited by Chris (Matt Dyktynski), Larry's brother. He has asked her specifically so he can propose to her, a move that his mother will inevitably take as a betrayal - she's "still Larry's girl".

To make things more complicated, Ann is the daughter of Joe's former business partner, Steve, with whom Joe made armaments during the war. Steve is now in prison, convicted of deliberately covering flaws in cylinder heads that later were responsible for the deaths of 21 pilots. Joe was exonerated of wrong-doing, but there are abiding suspicions that Steve was the patsy for a decision that was actually Joe's own. George (Teague Rook), Ann's brother, phones in agitation, having visited his father for the first time since his conviction: and now the stage is set for a showdown...

All this complex plotting is cunningly introduced, so the story emerges with a subtlety that fleshes out its melodramatic bones, and the whole is leavened by Miller's dry wit. The play's overt point is about corporate industry that, like Saturn, devours its own sons. But there is another point about the self-deception and, finally, self-alienation, that underlies corporate society.

Miller's description of the alienating mechanisms of capitalism is in fact straight out of Marx. As the playwright himself, always a reliable witness to his own work, comments: "[Joe Keller] is not a partner in society but an incorporated member, so to speak, and you cannot sue personally the officers of a corporation. I hasten to make clear here that I am not merely speaking of a literal corporation, but the concept of a man's becoming a function of production or distribution to the point where his personality becomes divorced from the actions it propels".

But what gives the drama its abiding force is the ancient and bloody theme of conflict between fathers and sons. Chris, inheritor of the blood money his father has sold his soul to make for him, has blindly participated in the family myth of his father's innocence. When all is revealed, his idealistic love for his father, and his own self-image, is shattered: "I know you're no worse than most men," he says to Joe. "But I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father."

Chris's final cry, "You can be better!" reflects the hope of progressives the world over. The play's naked idealism makes me wonder if such a work could be written now: for all his critique of the American dream, Miller believed in it with as much passion as any nationalist: he just thought it could better. Somehow, Miller's kind of ideological faith no longer seems possible without a good dose of doublethink; dissent now faces the challenge of stepping outside the paradigm, as, for example, in the biopolitics of Giorgio Agamben.

It strikes me that Miller's dramaturgical decisions - the machismo of those "hard" facts, those geometrical relationships, the carefully measured, brutally effective dramatic manipulations - are not so much in argument with the evils he critiqued, as an expression of those same ideologies. Yet there's no doubt that in the hands of a master these writerly mechanics still exercise an irresistible glamour; and it also seems to me that, in his best work, Miller mercifully escapes his own best intentions. Perhaps his major achievement is to use his steely craft to express genuine passion: the plays may be machines, but the ghost screams inside.

In plays of this kind, a major task of the cast and director is not to get in the way of the writing. Kate Cherry has chosen her cast wisely and given All My Sons a by-the-book production, which is, I suspect, the most effective way to approach Miller: on his own terms. Richard Roberts' set follows Miller's directions almost to the letter, only reorienting it to open haunting, luminous skies behind the poplars (there is something about evocations of sky on stage that always gets me - perhaps it's a race memory of Shakespeare's world stage). The cast meets the challenge, led by beautifully rounded performances from John Stanton and Janet Andrewartha. Matt Dyktynski is impressive as the idealistic Chris, and there's a nice cameo from Paul English as the disillusioned doctor.

Perhaps the most telling sign of its power is that the play runs for three hours, but it seems like half the time. It passed so quickly that at the end I checked my watch in disbelief. All My Sons is a classic production of a classic play that is seldom done here, and well worth seeing.

Picture: John Stanton and Janet Andrewartha in All My Sons. Photo: Jeff Busby


Nicholas Gruen said...

Alison, Thanks for a marvellous review. One major quibble. I loved your review because it was so eloquent about what I loved about the play. The production was much less good than the play. Joe and Chris (Stanton and Dyktynski) were pretty good I guess. George and the silly next door neighbour with three kids were good too. Most of the others were pretty awful I thought.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nicholas - thanks for your comment. I admit I am apt to be dazzled by brilliant writing (see Ben's comment on my review of Translations, for example, which is I think a very fair critique). But in fact, while I think Kate Cherry's production wasn't brilliant, I do think, even on reflection, that it was a fine one, for the reasons I mention. I went with some apprehension, especially after the disappointment of Entertaining Mr Sloane, and came out pleasantly surprised. For me anyway, it pressed all the right buttons.

richardwatts said...

I found the production somewhat static, and felt that Andrewartha and Dyktynski were maintaining their accents at the expense of an emotionally-grounded performance. Neither convinced me in their roles - I couldn't feel or believe their characters' emotions for most of the play.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

Like you, "I am apt to be dazzled by brilliant writing". In fact I feel more strongly than that. In the past I have claimed (a little out of context) that "the play's the thing"; that the acting doesn't matter so much; that if one of the actors says the lines badly, I just replay them in my head, in real time, the way they should have been said.

I've seen "All My Sons" several times before. At the end of this performance, I had mixed feelings: the play still seemed to be crackling; but something was missing.

Some friends discussed it over coffee. We felt that there was no obvious bad acting; but our conclusion mirrored that of Richard Watts: the acting was not convincing; we "couldn't feel or believe their characters' emotions".

Alison Croggon said...

Well, for me it was a by-the-book production; I get it when people say that it wasn't adventurous. And maybe I rather enjoyed the melodramatic edge of the acting, an edge that certainly exists in the text. It isn't naturalism, although at first it appears to be so; it's heightened, like the text itself, and winches up into extremity. When I came out, I was thinking of the kind of mid-century American realism that you get in things like East of Eden, which is in one way pure melodrama.

Anonymous said...

I'm from America, and I personally kept finding myself distracted by the accents! Most of the time they did well, but they all slipped from time to time. The worst was the man who played George, who would slip back into his Australian accent for what seemed like long periods of time. So I think you could tell that a lot of them were struggling with that a bit, and that affected their acting.

Anonymous said...

In the play, it seemed as though the accents were unneccesary. Being an australian production, accents could have been spared, and instead more emphasis could have been put on the acting. Personally, it was boring. I found the person playing kate too domineering compared to her role in the book. Her shaking was too rehearsed. It didnt seem real.

At an attempt for physical contact between Keller and Kate, it seemed more like a 3 stooges comedy act.

If I happen to see All My Sons again, I would like to see acting that does not mirror that of the OC, or other 2nd class drama's.

As a class of year 10 students studying the book, it came to agreement that the best characters were infact Frank and Lydia.

Anonymous said...

I finally got to see this production last Saturday and unfortunately, I was overall, disappointed. I love Miller's wonderfully evocative language but found this production rather bloodless. Stanton was very good as Joe (if a little too nice - he needs to be a bully at certain times, I think), as was English as Jim Bayliss. Rooke as George was pretty anaemic - no sense of bitterness/rage/confusion - and Andrewartha's performance verged at times(to quote John Patrick Shanley)on kabuki.

Anonymous said...

As a Year 11 student from Victoria, Australia studying this play in VCE Drama, I found the play quite boring. Perhaps if I had researched the play a bit more before I saw it, my views would not swing so far to this way. Although I am only 16, I've seen far better acting by the year 12 students at my school, where they can feel their characters and live for them, not by the book. When watching this play, all that kept me going was waiting for the next exciting moment to happen.
Also, Janet Andrewatha wasn't very convincing in this play. Is it just me, or did her character seem quite alot like her character in the TV series "Neighbours"?

cowinkadinky said...

Alison, your review for All My Sons was beautifully written and can't be said any other way than I can think of. If you're interested and if ever in Texas, the Harry Ransom Center on The University of Texas at Austin campus has an exhibit strictly dedicated to Arthur Miller. Feel free to check out the website =]