Trafalgar Studios 2, London (****)
What a coup, Arthur Miller’s first play, given its World premiere at a pub theatre in Islington, now deservedly transferred to the West End.
Full marks to director Sean Turner for hunting this down and for a production that honours its author with such integrity. Still rare as it is to see a Jewish household portrayed on the London stage, although Miller became one of the towering figures of 20th century drama, it was easy to overlook his Jewish roots.
Full marks again, then, to Turner for a production respecting the colour and textures of what Miller himself was to later call `the most autobiographical dramatic work I would ever write.’
Written in the Spring of 1936 when an impoverished student at Michigan University, No Villain, set in the same year, in New York, mirrors Miller’s own family history laying out the themes that were to resurface in later plays like All My Sons and Death of a Salesman and already imbued with his distinctive mix of politics and compassion.
Here is Abe, the father running a small clothing business, on the brink of collapse, struggling to deliver goods against a mounting banking crisis and growing militant trade unionism.
Here is Arty, the college son – the prodigal son and a Miller alter ego – returning home, evangelical about over-turning capitalism. And here is the over-anxious mother, Esther, sensing a coming catastrophe, kept in the dark by a husband keeping up a hopelessly positive front.
The scene is set for a climactic show-down and it comes from an unexpected quarter – Ben, the stay-at-home son, fighting to keep his father afloat but also to get him to face up to reality. Willy Loman and his family in prototype.
`Attention must be paid to this man’ (from Death of a Salesman) ran through my head watching Turner’s loving production, working wonders in the tiny Trafalgar Studio 2 with George Turvey, a titan as Ben and Alex Forsyth (what a rising star) as Miller’s alter ego, Arty.
But this is an ensemble piece all round. Thanks to Turner for giving us such an honest, fascinating account of a dramatic giant in the making.
No Villain runs at Trafalgar Studios to July 23, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, June 2016