Friday, 24 June 2016
Review No Villain
by Arthur Miller
Look Back In Anger
The year 1936 was an unhappy time for many Jewish immigrant families in America. Yet at the same the children of immigrants, albeit often cash-strapped, were receiving the kind of education their parents and grandparents could only dream of growing up in European and Russian towns and villages.
Children like Arthur Miller who took up playwriting and penned No Villain only as a means to receive an Avery Hopwood award to finance his journalism major college fees.
He was given the award, swapped to playwritng and the rest of course is history. But in a feat of literary excavation, nearly 80 years later, director Sean Turner has unearthed this remarkably mature and complex previously unstaged piece by the 20 year Miller in the University of Michigan archive.
Following an initial sell-out run at the Old Red Lion, No Villain has now transferred to the Trafalgar Studios. Abe Simon (David Bromley) has risen out of piece work garment making in New York to become the owner of his own furriers' workshop.
Yet to expand, like many others in the manufacturers' trust of which he is a part, he has taken out bank loans, working with the tightest possible margins.
The line between prosperity and defaulting is worryingly fine and when rag trade shipping clerks who transport the coats to retailers go on strike, the situation is desperate.
So much so, Abe is even willing to taken advantage of workplace workhorse Frank (Michael Lyle) who ends up bloodstained after attempting to smuggle boxes of coats through the picket lines.
At home, Abe lives with wife Esther (Nesba Crenshaw), his daughter Maxine (Helen Coles), son Ben (George Turvey) and his elderly father-in-law (Kenneth Jay), the bridge between the old world and new world of business.
In the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer the protagonist in dispute with his father cuts himself off. There is no such rift in No Villain between Abe and his synagogue-going father-in-law.
But when elder son Ben, who has dedicated himself to the firm, eventually breaks away from an arranged marriage and the traditional father-in-law, son-in-law financial set up, he tears the fabric of his family apart and more
This is a sly, certainly not face-value play. With the benefit of hindsight, some may be quick to assume it is a juvenile work blocking an examination of it as a stand-alone play with its own mix of ingenuity and irony.
Brother Arnold (Alex Forsythe) returns home for college, head stuffed full of theories and tries to shoehorn his mother's legitimate fears into the latest psychiatric theory.
The shipping clerks on strike could just as well be commandeered to destroy the small-time businessmen on loans (something charted in Jerome Weidmann's almost contemporary 1937 novel I Can Get It For You Wholesale).
By 1936 US moneylenders were calling in their loans from Europe and Russia. Successful immigrant businessmen (they were mostly men!), like Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, could no longer send back money to fund their home towns and regions, including the pension funds.
Nearly every Jewish immigrant family, many of whom had lost everything during the Wall Street Crash, were receiving letters from relatives scapegoated in the lands of their birth, begging for a sponsor and a shipping line ticket to allow them to emigrate.
No Villain with its disclaimer of a title in an America and Europe filled wth corporate states and inter-nation loans is an important, astonishingly mature work, albeit with its echoes of Clifford Odets's Waiting For Lefty, for a 20 year old journalist major.
With the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and, above all, the betrayal of the show trials and purges, often targetting Jews, in Russia, Miller heeded the calls of a desperate people seeking escape while facing the reality of life in America.
Of course the Miller family's experience including losses in the Wall Street Crash informs this play, even taking his own mother's surname for the fictional grandfather's surname.
Yet it feels reductive and blinkering to over-identify the play with autobiography. There is a playwright's hand behind the artful concertina of family and world events.
If the call to action at the end feels rushed and hollow after a funeral and foreclosure, that's probably because, with world events as they were, it was meant to be - political affiliation the best option but, many knew by then, not a solution.
This is not a perfect production, sometimes suffering from over-gesturing and a caricatural feel, but it is a clear one with an atmospheric hallway and living room set by Max Dorey transforming cleverly and simply into the factory floor
It also benefits from an outstanding performance by George Turvey as Ben. An amber/green light for an uneven but crisp production of a play which should now become a staple of theatrical programming.