Theatre review: All My Sons at the Old Vic - NT-Live
All My Sons
The Old Vic, 2019
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Cast: Sally Field, Bill Pullman, Colin Morgan, Jenna Coleman, Oliver Johnstone, Sule Rimi, Kayla Meikle, Bessie Carter, Gunnar Cauthery
NT-Live - May 2019
I really dislike the overt symbolism of the broken apple tree in the front yard of the Keller's house at the opening of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. There's something Chekovian about it that sits at odds with American post-war playwrights, but I guess if Tennessee Williams can have a streetcar named desire, then why shouldn't Miller have a broken apple tree named America? The danger of the symbolism is that it can weigh heavily upon the play which has undercurrents that are apparent enough when they rise to the surface. If not handled right the message can engulf the human drama that is far more important to the overall impact of the play.
That was the case when I last saw All My Sons at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in 2015. It's a good play, it has important messages about the state of America that still need saying now as much as the period in which it was written, but that production did feel a little contrived and heavy-handed. Having seen The Old Vic's 2019 production, streamed live and already garnering additional sell-out encore screenings as part of the NT-Live programme, it's clear that it doesn't have to be that way. Not when you give due consideration to the human side of things, and only way you can feel the reality of the meaning and impact on real people is through the characters up on the stage, not in a broken apple tree.
The apple tree is however one of the first thing you see in All My Sons and in the Old Vic production it's there at the forefront house right of the stage, a young sapling, only three years old, snapped almost in two by the previous night's storm. Its collapse has been witnessed by anxious mother Kate Keller, sitting out front at 4:00 in the morning, still hopelessly awaiting the return of her son for whom the tree was planted, a US Air Force pilot whose plane was reported missing during the war. Kate hasn't given up hope that Larry might return, but this event threatens or portends that her hopes are about to be dashed.
The tree symbolises so much more than that as the play progresses and we discover the other circumstances that have been weighing on the Keller family. Principally, there's the scandal - based on a true story - of the faulty fighter engines that Joe Keller's factory allowed to be shipped out, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. Joe has been acquitted of any blame, it having been proved that he wasn't at the plant at the time the shipment was made to the military, but at home sick with the flu, the blame falling on his former colleague and neighbour, Steve Deever who has been imprisoned.
If the apple tree is not a direct symbol for the young pilots being cut down in their youth for the sake of profit, it's only because the play seeks to make an even greater statement. It's the loss of the American dream in favour of a land where profits rules, where otherwise unpardonable acts are permitted if you have money and influence. It's the little man that takes the fall and pays the price, while the successful self-made businessman that America upholds as its ideal, cannot be permitted to fail. Even if the real truth might be suspected that Joe at least knew about it the mistake or even worse authorised it, he's still accorded the respect of his position and success. That little tree has to carry a lot of heavy symbolism in All My Sons, and it's no wonder it's broken.
But while it's important to understand the criticisms of how the American system is broken, and indeed apply it to values that we can still see operating in America today, the strength of Miller's writing lies not in placing an apple tree at the front of the stage, but in the creation of the characters in the play. Yes, in some respect they do represent 'types' but the skill in which Miller makes this tragedy a genuine personal and family drama, makes their concerns and their lives real, only feeds into making the bigger picture feel even more meaningful. It's not the tree and its symbolism that has to carry the weight in All My Sons, it's the actors, and it's the performances here that elevate the work and reveal the real qualities and strengths of the play in The Old Vic's production.
It's the human aspect and some exceptional performances that make this production totally absorbing. I thought initially that the familiar 1940s' setting with its idyllic all-American wooden house with the porch might distance the play from any contemporary application and Bill Pullman's slow deliberations as Joe also seemed a little too calculatedly homely, but the benefits of that are fully realised as the play progresses and as Chris and Ann enter the play. This is the embodiment of the American ideal and it has a persuasive nostalgic tug for the younger generation - even Ann's angry brother George is almost seduced by his return there - but it's an ideal that is revealed to be built on corrupt foundations (or rotten on the inside if you want to apply the apple-tree metaphor) and unsustainable. Innocence has been lost, it can't be regained, there's no return to Eden, the American Dream is dead.
Which as I say is an important message to get across, but it risks being heavy-handed. Not so here. Personally, I thought it was Chris Morgan's terrific heartfelt performance of Chris Keller that was at the heart of the production, but no, he's just the first one to question the way things are. Miller's writing is just as good for all the other characters, and when the time comes for each of them to face up to the truth of who they really are and what they've become, the impact delivered particularly by Sally Field's Kate and Bill Pullman's Joe is just as devastating. There's an incredible equilibrium that needs to be managed to achieve that, to allow you to feel the weight of the human tragedy behind the scathing message and the symbolism, and director Jeremy Herrin handles it remarkably well. If you get a chance to catch an encore NT-Live cinema screening of The Old Vic's All My Sons, it's unmissable.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson