The Old Vic, London – until 30 March 2019
Much like, I rather suspect, many other theatre fans I am seeing a lot of Arthur Miller this year. More than I have ever seen in the rest of my life combined. He seems to be everywhere. Or at least everywhere that has ‘Vic’ in its name.
My first dose is the pleasingly unknown (to me) and rarely performed The American Clock, the first in a Miller double header at The Old Vic. Full title, The American Clock: A Vaudeville, the play tells the story of the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression as experienced by one rich New York family, the Baum family, interspersed with a series of scenes set elsewhere – from NYC boardrooms to the Mississippi River (and give the play, I assume, its ‘Vaudeville’ subtitle since they play out as standalone sketches that occasionally incur on the main narrative).
Is it Miller’s best play? Probably not. The story-to-sketch-and-back-again structure gives everything a very stop-start feeling that strips the main narrative of some of its power and there’s no question that the Baums are nowhere near as strong as protagonists as those in other, more linearly structured, Miller plays.
This is no Death of a Salesman (probably for the best, since that’s on at the Young Vic later in the year). But it’s still a really fascinating piece of historical storytelling – I absolutely disagree with the critics who say it is too exposition heavy – with a lot to say about the Crash and what came later. I also quite enjoyed that it wears its politics so proudly on its sleeve. By any other measure this is a great play. It’s just perhaps not a great Arthur Miller play.
It is, though, a great production. Rachel Chavkin, of Hadestown fame, is in the director’s chair and her decisions are whip sharp, technically effective and visually stunning. I suspected this already, but this production more than proves that she is worthy of the ‘visionary’ tag that’s so often attached to her in press releases.
The integration of music, both period and Justin Ellington’s contemporary original, and Ann Yee’s similarly diverse choreography is incredible; enhancing and advancing the action as well as fulfilling the ‘A Vaudeville’ subtitle. Chloe Lamford’s set is huge and amazing, the use of an Olivier-esque revolve is really effective and I loved the moment where water fells down over the chalked up stock market numbers and slowly washed them away as the Crash happened.
I loved the diverse casting too, though the decision to have the actors playing Moe, Rose and Lee Baum change from a white Jewish to a South Asian to an African American family did, for me, lessen the impact of the already fragmented narrative. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really clever way to show the changing face of the American family (and of course who does and doesn’t benefit from The American Dream) and all of the actors involved do a great job. I’m just not sure that the narrative, or maybe more accurately the structure of the narrative, is strong enough to support it. In a different play, I think it would have 100% worked.
Speaking of actors, the group assembled here are spectacularly good. I’m not sure where in London you can see a better cast at the moment to be honest. This is all the more impressive given that absolutely everyone plays multiple parts, in multiple narratives, and has to be able to sing and dance a bit too.
The highlight is undoubtedly Clarke Peters (stars of The Wire doing Miller being a pleasing microtrend at the two Vics this year) who is magnetic as narrator Robertson, tragic Iowan farmer Taylor and Moe 3. It’s a performance of utter assurance, charisma, anger, sadness and charm and I could have watched it for days. The play is already three hours long but I would have happily sat for much longer if Peters was on the stage. Others worthy of mention (which to be honest is everyone but, y‘know, I’m lazy) are Ewan Wardrop’s scene stealing tap dancing capitalist refusenik – if you’re missing the dancing feet of 42nd Street now it’s closed in the West End then Wardrop’s here for you – Golda Rosheuvel’s heartbreaking Rose 3 and Taheen Modak and Abhin Galeya’s complex father son scenes as Lee 2 and Moe 2 respectively. This cast is squad goals, though. There’s not a weak link.
I really enjoyed and was really technically impressed with The American Clock. A decent play, in an amazing production by a truly visionary director, brought to life by a brilliant cast. My only complaint is that the programme that accompanies it is truly shit. Save your £4.
The American Clock is at The Old Vic until 30th March.
I sat in seat A4 in the Lilian Baylis circle for this one which cost £21. It’s slightly restricted by a safety rail, but otherwise a really good seat for the price point – I tend to sit there or thereabouts for everything at the OV.