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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE AMERICAN CLOCK
at the Old Vic

LESSON NEVER LEARNED
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ewan Wardrop/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

It’s no secret that Arthur Miller is more revered in Britain than he is on his home turf. Currently, the London theatre would seem to be planning a mini Miller festival with imminent revivals of All My Sons, an all-black Death of a Salesman and current productions of The Price and The American Clock, the latter a resounding flop when it first played the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway in 1980.
 
Inspired by Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, Clock’s qualities were reassessed somewhat when the National staged it in 1986. Subsequent revivals, without camouflaging its flaws, have excavated qualities never acknowledged when the play – which could easily have been sub-titled "Death of a Nation" – first premiered. Of all Miller’s plays, including The Crucible, it self-consciously sets out to achieve epic status and, in Miller’s words, “to paint a devastating canvas of one of the vaster social calamities in history – the Great Depression.”
 
In Miller’s tale of ruin and devastation, nobody is spared except an astute businessman-cum-narrator called Arthur Robertson (Clarke Peters), whose advice to his associates to pull out of the stock market prior to the Wall Street Crash falls on deaf ears. The all-devouring tsunami resulting from that fateful day in October 1929 found one fifth of the nation, including dispossessed Ohio farmers, starving and unemployed and with suicide a drastic alternative to charity. 
 
It’s a period that has been meticulously documented in countless plays, novels, movies, and sociological studies. So what is left to say about it? Precious little in terms of information, which is why this particular clock strikes its loudest chords when it concentrates on the private deprivations of the Baum household rather than the broader look it takes at a nation’s agony. Family dynamics have always been Miller’s forte, and so it proves once again.
 
Representing just one faction of the population ruined by the crash is the Baum household headed by Moe, a once-affluent Jewish businessman who, like his neighbors and his neighbor’s neighbors, has been financially ruined. In one of the play’s most moving scenes, he humiliatingly asks his young son Lee for a quarter for the subway. Rose, his music-loving wife, is forced to sell her cherished grand piano, with sacrifices also having to be made by her sister and her family.
 
Given that Miller is writing semi-autobiographically here, it is not surprising he is in his element chronicling ordinary folk in crisis, and in The American Clock it is his humanity rather than the broad, documentary-like scope of his canvas to which attention must ben paid.
 
That said, director Rachel Chavkin does the piece no favours by casting the Baum family with three actors of differing ethnicity for each role in order to make the point that whole swathes of the population suffered the same hardships. Thus the characters are played by James Garnon, Abhin Galeya and Peters, which I found more confusing than enlightening.

Chavkin directs the play in the round, with rows of seats where the stage normally is. This necessitates the use of a revolve that also emphasises its panoramic concept. Miller called The American Clock “a vaudeville,” which is underlined by incorporating into the text several songs of the period, including some nifty tap-dancing, courtesy of Ewan Wardrop as General Electric honcho Ted Quinn.
 
Try as she clearly has, Chavkin has been unable to disguise the rather awkward, jerky, episodic nature of the play’s structure, eliminate some of its preachiness, nor successfully meld its domestic moments with its more historic aspects. She does, however, draw fine performances from Peters, Golda Rosheuvel, Clare Burt and, playing no fewer than seven roles, Francesca Mills, who is small in stature but big on impact.
 
Much has been made of Miller’s ability to write within a particular period of time yet still remain relevant decades later. And to an extent this is true. But in the case of The American Clock, he has nothing new or profound to add to our knowledge of rampant capitalism and its pitfalls. It’s a lesson, alas, that will never be learned.

 


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