FringeReview UK 2016
No Villain premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre and now Arthur Miller’s 1936 student play transfers here, this close-packed play with an eight strong cast negotiates the tiny Studio 2 at Trafalgar. Directed by Sean Tuner. With lighting by Jack Weir and sound and composition from Richard Melkonian,
Arthur Miller’s 1936 student No Villain premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre and now transfers here, directed by Sean Tuner. With lighting by Jack Weir and sound and composition from Richard Melkonian rather suggesting the 1950s than 1936 when it was set, this close-packed play with an eight strong cast negotiates the tiny Studio 2 at Trafalgar.
The family scene’s all realism and the factory consists of wheeling on racks of dresses to obscure the backdrop; neat, evocative, fit for the Trafalgar’s miniature purposes.
It was Miller’s last throw of the literary dice, before surrendering to quotidian employment: it secured him the money for studying at Michigan University. Till last year it had vanished, but tracked down and given the estate’s blessing it emerges as a strong, nascent Miller play.
Eschewing the relentless build-up of for instance All My Sons and the masterly ratcheting of tension, it hearkens to 1930s drama such as Clifford Odets. But you can see even in this slightly looser-limbed (though only 90 minute) piece Miller become himself as he suddenly realizes where his tension lies; and switches. It’s breathtaking. We literally see him become a true dramatist.
The play centres round a strike on clothing manufacturing conditions and pay – and its effect on the owner’s family. Owner Abe, the man who’s already gone broke years ago and only now recovering, is determined to get his orders across. So is every other clothier.
As we open later-period jazz plays on a later-period radiogram, sister Maxine (Helen Coles) and elder brother Ben entwined as parents indulgently chaff their persiflage – even mild flirtation. Maxine’s part isn’t developed, the kind of thing Miller would have reworked. Ben however is a very different proposition.
Younger brother Arny (Ale Forsyth) a college student, writer and fledgling communist, is breathlessly expected back by his mother, Esther who’s identified later (in a shaft of 1930s sexism) by the doctor, reluctantly, as ‘a little hysterical’ though she overpowers the eponymous anti-hero ‘no villain’ Abe. Esther is merely in fact the paradigm of Jewish mother in the full regalia of anxiety, another stereotype perhaps and Miller here unlike later plays very specifically locates this family as Jewish. Nesba Crenshaw easily overpowers the more taciturn David Bromley whose greatest exchanges come with his elder son Ben. You can see All My Sons about to merge.
Ben’s not immune to the ideals of communism either and explains to Maxine – she seems here a cipher – Marxian tenets that Ben himself has no leisure to explore. The onus is on Arny – Miller was called Arty by his family – to strike a blow for the workers and refuse to join in the band of two people prepared to break the strike, his brother and a hapless employee Frank, who’s soon bloodied for his pains. There’s no tension here though. However Ben, an idealist himself puts it, Arny – who’s subtly portrayed elsewhere as someone who refuses at every point to take family money even for a coach or loaf of bread – won’t budge.
Like Alan Bennett’s Alan and Alan 2, the brothers seem Arty or Arny 1 and Arny 2. The callow communist who won’t budge and the more adult one who knows a family’s survival depends on it. It’s George Turvey’s Ben who realizes the weight of compromise, a full hefting of self-realisation, along with the play’s. In standing up to his father who knows no compromise either, in trying to reason with workers, refusing to let his father take risks and in effect assuming responsibility for the family, Ben becomes in effect the site of conflict and resolution. It’s he who attempts to carry through the parcels: his violent repulsion seals the factory’s fate and the banks will foreclose. In a neat twist it’s admitted that all the orders to all clothiers are the same, the value lies in breaking the strike first.
The fall-out’s worse. Esther’s septuagenarian father Old Barnett (bumbling Kenneth Jay) already resented by Abe and living Lear-like with each daughter in turn, takes a real turn for the worse. The denouement brings Ben faced with further, very seductive compromise. Stephen Omer’s already splendid as the doctor and a bank collector, here as rich Roth, he offers Ben in effect his highly successful business and daughter. It’s Ben’s reaction that squeezes and releases the beating heart of the play’s idealism, and the burden of Miller’s message of self-reliance and respect. An exceptional addition to Miller and ourselves.