All My Sons, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, Runs till 26 October 2013, Tickets from £10-36
Talawasa Theatre Company’s version of All My Sons, directed by Michael Buffong, is very much in classical style. Arthur Miller’s script is treated with great respect. All those perennial Miller themes – fate and the human urge to control his or her own destiny, love and loss, acceptance and denial, breakdown and coming together both romantic and familial, social and economic deprivation, and both the mundane grievances and small joys of everyday life are present and mostly well handled in this production.
Miller’s All My Sons, like many of the plays in which he writes as a post-war tragedian, takes influence from Greek tragedy, and Aristotle’s three unities – of action, place and time – are clearly felt in this production. It has a sense of purpose. The tension around Joe’s crime simmers away until the revelation towards the end of the play. The use of a garden setting creates the feeling of an idyll wrecked by war, industry and forces beyond human control; this is aided by the Exchange’s theatre being in the round. From this there is also a sense of claustrophobia and being trapped, the main characters speaking of how they must leave or go and either not doing so, or being pulled back. And then there are subtle changes in the lighting as time passes. There are birds chirruping at first but their song fades as with the light. In a play as obsessed with morality as this there is an underlying religious symbolism that the set provocates. The storm that leaves Larry’s apple tree broken and the garden unkempt and changed from how it was before are fate-laden and cataclysmic portents. Ann Deever is a symbol of temptation, forbidden fruit, she and Chris share an apple that Joe Keller splits with his hands, giving half to each of them.
Miller’s script is also a funny script at times and the humorous moments are enthusiastically played-up by the cast. These were well received by the audience. Young actor Nyah Kunda in the small role of Bert, brandishing a sheriff’s star on his red, white and black plaid shirt, relishes his pretend shoot-out and game of ‘jail’ with Don Warrington’s Joe Keller.
Simon Coombs as successful city lawyer George Deever (young Sammy Davis Jr. like in a grey trilby) should be singled out for praise, his performance brought great spirit and energy to a cast that at times seemed to lack coherence and connection; it’s still early in the run so there is time for this to improve. The main issue with this was mostly in a first half that never seemed to gain any momentum and where the minor characters didn’t have much impact. However, the second upped the stakes considerably with Coomb’s introduction, as it accelerated its way towards the shocking and perhaps inevitable denouement. The actors seemed more invested, the whole thing had more bite, urgency and started to click. By the time Joe and Chris Keller have read Larry’s letter many audience members had their hands on their mouths or faces from the tension. Really this is drama of the delay, to which Ann Deever holds the key. Having said this, Warrington, in an unrelenting role in which he is onstage for most of the play, conveys the stubbornness, conviction and vulnerability of Joe Keller excellently and Doña Croll as his wife Kate Keller has forceful presence.
The male characters wear almost exclusively pastel colours and cream. Females are always dressed in shades of green or floral and foliage patterns. The styling is very accurate for the era the play is set in. The set is mostly plain or white painted wood. There is a chair swing, the front façade and porch of the Kellers’ house, the apple tree that the storm breaks, benches and chairs. Onto the floor a swampy green, white and brown patterned light is cast producing the effect of a lawn. All this is very idyllic and has a Southern American feel that challenges the plays setting in and around New York.
Talawasa’s production though doesn’t seem to want to make an obvious political point through staging, setting or changing Miller’s context, rather the message is that here are a group of talented Black performers who can take their place at the forefront of this kind of play, thanks to this company. As Buffong states in the program interview ‘Someone said, “Is there going to be a racism angle?”, as if being black onstage means you only exist in a ‘racism prism’ and you couldn’t possibly do a play about greed and social responsibility and corruption.’ It’s sad that race must always come into the equation, surely a true step towards acceptance and racial equality is a culture in which, as Buffong says, we just discuss the play. In many ways All My Sons is a highly appropriate production for Talawasa. The context in which Miller wrote the work speaks as a kind of subtext in itself, in lieu of any obvious political or racial agitation. In his book Arthur Miller (2008), Christopher Bigsby provides a long list of anti-establishment and ‘communist type organizations’ of which Miller was a member around the time All My Sons was written. Amongst these are the Civil Rights Congress, Veterans Against Discrimination and Progressive Citizens of America. Of the play itself Bigsby states that ‘Miller is, in essence an existentialist who not only sees the characters as the sum of their actions but insists that private acts have public consequences’ citing the influence upon Miller of Ibsen. Buffong’s version zeros in on similar ideas, the feelings of outrage and injustice that exist just below the surface at first and gradually creep up on the characters involved.
One interesting aside about theatre etiquette in the age of smart phones was that several people in the audience were ready to chastise (a variety of sounds on the tips of their tongues to replace actual words) some anonymous person who hadn’t switched off or silenced their handset and its vintage ringtone, before realizing the ringing was actually coming from the house on stage, as part of the play. That provided an unintended laugh. Later in the performance they got a second chance however when another audience member’s Galaxy or iPhone rang for real. This was more than capably handled by the actors onstage who never looked like getting distracted. Switch off people, switch off.
This version of All My Sons then is not without imperfection, but its solid elements combined with the strength of Miller’s imaginative vision and storytelling alone makes it worth a visit to the Royal Exchange for this production.