All My Sons
Sons and slaughters
Steve Cramer finds profound and uncomfortable truths beneath the text in the Royal Lyceum’s production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
A brilliant, but profoundly uneasy evening awaits the ‘Well, Saddam was a son of a bitch, so the war was justified’ school of thought at the Lyceum. So, too, the ‘we can only vote for the Tories in power or those awaiting power’ mindset will face some scrupulous questioning. But perhaps most of all, the ‘everything that happens outside the house is just politics and nothing to do with me’-style self-deluder is in for a rough ride.
And all this happens in John Dove’s production of Arthur Miller’s earliest classic, in the context of a family drama full of the deepest beauty and tragic power, where no easy solutions are propounded, and no villain is in evidence.
In case you aren’t familiar with the text, we meet Joe Keller (Stuart Milligan), a comfortably off suburban American awaiting retirement with his wife Kate (Kathryn Howden), a woman who refuses to accept that her son, killed three years before the play’s 1947 historical location, is in fact not missing, but dead. This presents a problem for Chris (Richard Conlon), their surviving son, a war veteran himself, who seeks marriage to Ann (Shonagh Price), his brother’s former fiancée. A scandal to do with her father, Joe’s, former partner, has seen faulty parts built into warplanes, and the succession of deaths this occasioned has seen him imprisoned. But is there some secret harboured by Joe and his ostensibly happy bourgeois family? Into this comfortable world of fudged innocence and tacit complicity, the messenger in the shape of Ann’s brother George will bring a shattering truth.
What’s so amazing about Dove’s production, in front of Michael Taylor’s perfectly lawned backyard set is its integrity to Miller’s text. Its power lies in the director’s insistence on directing, not auteurship. And integrity is the keyword here, for Miller himself retains a very contemporary power for forensic insistence on truth about contemporary capitalism that seems even more needed now than at the time of the play’s first performance six decades ago. The self-delusions maintained by the characters are all perfectly understandable in the context, and there is a moment, as George is taken to the bosom of the family in question, where, I feel sure, many in the audience were willing the corruption to continue beneath all the warm seductive bonhomie. Yet Miller will not allow it, and rightly so. Instead we are forced to confront our own preference for easy deceptions, for what Chris contemptuously calls ‘practical’ life.
There are performances of real distinction here. The central trio of Milligan, Howden and Conlon are superb. Howden’s frail, half broken, but desperately chipper mother in particular is a treat. There is first rate support, notably from Meg Fraser as the doctor’s wife, whose insistence that the world beyond the picket fence must be kept at bay has turned to brutal cynicism, and Laing as an ambivalent hero-by-accident. Indeed, the ensemble work is uniformly strong on a night that should not be missed by anyone with a taste for human drama, or home truths.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 10 Feb