Arthur Miller could easily be considered America’s greatest twentieth-century playwright were it not for the likes of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, contemporaries of Miller, who arguably also deserve that accolade. Miller though has rarely been out of fashion and his plays that so often focus on working men and the problems of industry have struck a particular chord in London’s West End in our current age of austerity. It would be too simplistic to see the almost outrageous success of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge – which earned a shed-load of UK awards before adding more at the most recent Tony’s on Broadway and some days I might even admit it was best thing I’d ever seen in the West End – as the cause of a fresh round of Miller-mania but with high profile versions of classics The Crucible at the Old Vic, and the RSC’s Death of Salesman, the appetite for Miller’s work is as strong as ever.
Wonderful then to be offered something entirely new. While rooting around in the archives of the University of Michigan, director Sean Turner unearthed Miller’s very first play written in 1936 when he was at College thrown together in just six days. Not performed for 80 years, No Villain was created solely to win a cash prize to allow Miller to continue with his studies, and duly awarded the play was cast aside. It received its premiere at the Old Red Lion theatre in Angel earlier this year before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios for the next couple of months.
An undiscovered play is like a treasure trove for theatre lovers, one that hints at the genius to come while telling us much more about the author’s process, idea formation and route to success. No Villain is the story of the Simon family and in what would become a commonplace model for Miller, it is concerned with the relationship between a father and his two sons, one doing all the work while the other is the favourite. There’s industrial unrest at the factory preventing the Simons from shipping their fur coats to buyers and Miller’s early flirtation with concepts of Communism are used to amplify both the generational gap between the managerial father and his worker sons, as well as dividing the brothers as Arnie’s intellectualism is pitted against Ben’s practical application of Communist principles at work.
But the play opens with domestic concerns as the family sit around late one night waiting for Arnie to return home from College. He’s told his mother Esther he’ll get the bus or hitch-hike aiming to be home around 11.30pm, but being of a somewhat hysterical nature her anxiety increases with every minute and begins to work herself and her family to a pitch of agitation. Nesba Crenshaw makes Esther permanently panic-stricken and constantly on edge, so even after her family is reunited we see the endless worry about factory finances, her husband’s ability to cope and her ailing father who’s come to stay. Her lot in life is to worry about men while never fully cutting the apron strings for her sons – she seems to have no concern at all for her teenage daughter – and this leads to considerable moments of tension and frustration for them as she pesters and nags them until they crave peace elsewhere.
Patriarch Abe Simon feels like an early draft of Miller’s famous salesman Willy Lowman and the relationship with his sons is similar fraught. Like his wife, Abe is afraid of the future, of progress and even technology which the thread of Communism seems to imply. Part of that fear comes from knowing his business was already ailing before the strike amplified his difficulties and that a time is coming when he will be replaced by a younger generation. In David Bromley’s performance we see that Abe relies heavily on his son Ben who seems the only one capable of practical action, even needing him to work the telephone for him, yet at the same time Bromley shows us Abe’s fear of his children, of their new world view and growing inability to control them. Miller was fascinated by father-son relationships and this one helps us to see that the transition from child to adult is a difficult one for a father to oversee as the son begins to excel and surpass his parent.
George Turvey is excellent as the world-weary Ben trying to balance filial duty with his belief in his greater business sense and the knowledge that the family prefer his brother Arnie. We’re given hints that Ben too was at College once, although whether he completed his studies or sacrificed them to join the family business as his dad wishes is unclear. Turvey’s Ben is also engaged in a constant battle – much like his mother – shouldering both the primary burden of the flailing business as he negotiates with banks and suppliers to save his father from the truth, but also acting a crutch for the family, often taking the lead on decision-making and calming the worries of his more emotional parents. But Ben is also kind and we hear not only of his sympathy for the workers but, in a throw-away moment, his attempts to pay them during the strike, showing that while his family cling avidly to every last inch of the past, Ben is bravely accepting and almost welcoming of a different future.
The rest of the characters are a little thinner and as you could expect from such an early work, Miller’s inexperience is most obvious here. Arnie played engagingly by Alex Forsyth keeps everyone waiting for some time at the start, building up an idea of his importance to the story that is never properly realised. He makes for a great contrast with his brother – brain against brawn – but never feels anything more than a pen sketch of something that should be much deeper given how other characters refer to him. There is a daughter Maxine whose minor appearances involve giggling, being indulged by her father and being sent to another room, and a resident Jewish grandparent who adds to the crush in the Simon household but Miller doesn’t use this third generation to make any further points about changing expectations of masculinity or even the challenges of their faith.
No Villain is understandably a tad incomplete as a play but this production nonetheless proves to be an engaging and insightful 80 minutes. While Miller’s early attempt to blend politics and domestic drama are somewhat cruder than his later work, the genesis of his approach to playwriting and the formation of idea and character are fascinating. Turner’s vision of a family in decline and the economic effects of the Depression Era are not only brilliantly realised but couldn’t be more timely. As a result of the recent referendum, the UK is now on the edge of its own precipice and the as yet unknown consequences will be felt for many years to come. In this context, the staging of Miller’s first play feels astonishingly relevant.
No Villain is at the Trafalgar Studios until 23 July. Tickets are £15-£30. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1