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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Apollo


  Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet/ Ph: Nobby Clarke

In his latest, typically truculent book of essays on theatre, David Mamet observes how Broadway’s audience, who once loved the drama of argument, now prefers the entertainment of spectacle. And the spectacle of celebrity.
The same is true of London’s West End. It takes star casting to get a heavyweight tragedy into a major commercial theatre. Arthur Miller’s plays have the added disincentive, some say, of preaching to the audience. All My Sons (1947), for instance, is a sermon about our responsibility to society. And these days, people are not going to pay to be preached at unless they’ve seen the preacher on TV.
The rules, of course, are different in the case of London’s subsidized National Theatre, which ten years ago hosted director Howard Davies’ previous production of this, Miller’s first stage success.
Why has Davies returned to the play? Remember that this is Miller we are talking about, the playwright whose status in England is, as the director John Dexter once put it, a little below Shakespeare’s and a little above God’s.
So this time Davies and designer William Dudley take the play to the commercial stage with a new cast led by the very famous David Suchet and the equally well-known (at least in Britain) Zoë Wanamaker.
For over 20 years, Suchet has been the face of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. And although die-hard Poirot fans will recognise Wanamaker from occasional appearances in the detective series (as mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver), to many she is a sitcom favourite – an actress who can energise the blandest dialogue with more intelligence, timing and vulnerability than it deserves. Imagine, then, what she does with Miller.
The play is set after the war in the backyard of Keller’s imposing mid-West home, which is swathed in the lush foliage of a weeping willow. The head of this idyllic-looking household is Joe Keller (Suchet), a one-time manufacturer of aeroplane engines who, it emerges, knowingly sold cracked cylinder heads to the government. Twenty-one pilots lost their lives. They were pilots like his missing, presumed-dead son. It is a crime for which his business partner took the rap.
From the teasing banter between Joe and his other son Chris (Stephen Campbell Moore) you wouldn’t guess that this is a family in mourning. At least not until Kate, the family’s matriarch, emerges from that big old house.
For Wanamaker, this is home ground. As with Miller, her American actor father Sam was a victim of the McCarthy anti-Communist purges, which was why Sam migrated to England. (His most lasting contribution to his adopted country, however, was not his acting but his successful campaign to build the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). So Wanamaker, it is fair to say, has a grip on the author's spirit and the play’s social conscience.
Her Kate has the haunted air of a woman who is both grief-stricken and in denial about the death of her son. That he may never come back is a banned topic of conversation. For Chris, the last three years has been like waiting at a railway station for a train that never comes.
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