Sunday, December 13, 2015

'No Villain' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 11th December 2015

As I was heading out a friend asked me where I was going. "Oh, just heading to the world premiere of an Arthur Miller play". Now that's a phrase you don't get to say too often. 

No Villain was written in 1936 by a student Miller hoping to win a $250 writing prize. Upon completion it promptly vanished into the University of Michigan archives. But for a mention in Miller's memoir Timebends it might have remained a historical footnote. But, tantalisingly, Miller referred to it as "The most autobiographical dramatic work I would ever write." This stoked the curiosity of director Sean Turner, who embarked on a mission to resurrect it.

After a year rummaging through dusty papers and old boxes, Turner found his prize. This is Miller's first play; never staged, little known and maybe providing genuine insights into the author's life. Now, a full century after its author's birth we're attending to what may well be the last Arthur Miller world premiere anywhere, ever.

But is it any good?

First impressions are good. The dowdy, lived in depression era household is impeccably detailed; from the old clip-on rotary telephone down to the now tatty/once grand furniture. The floor has been stripped back to the boards, filling the air with a mustily wooden smell. On consulting the programme I am not surprised to see that this impressive creation is the work of Max Dorey, whose work on Theatre503's And Then Come the Nightjars knocked my socks off earlier in the year.

Soon we meet the inhabitants of this home. Headed by patriarch and coat-maker Abe Simon (David Bromley) and his wife Esther (Nesba Crenshaw), they have two sons, Ben (George Turvey) and Arny (Adam Harley) and a young daughter, Maxine (Helen Coles). The Simons once proud family who've fallen on hard times, we meet them as they await the return of Arny from college.

In their stressed out bickering we gradually piece together what's bothering everybody. The family business is slowly failing, a process that's accelerated by a shipping boy's strike. Despite Abe having plenty of orders for coats, the strike means he can't get them to his customers. This is straining his credit with the bank - the wolf is at the door.

Compounding his problems are his sons' socialist leanings. The older Ben keeps his Marxist sympathies close to his chest, swallowing his pride and working as a scab for his father. Arny, fresh from university, will not countenance working against the will of the workers, proclaiming that to do so would leave him "an animal". Ben has chosen family over politics, Arny the exact opposite. Friction ensues.

No Villain sometimes feels a 'bit studenty'. It's peppered with didactic passages that buzz with the enthusiasm of the fresh convert to Communism. I see a lot of iffy student plays that settle for lecturing the audience about the playwrights political concerns, and this play is the 1930s equivalent of that. But this is an Arthur Miller play, and though he hasn't yet fully corralled his talents, his knack for dialogue and character shines through.

There's individual character moments that are fascinatingly observed; my favourites the harried mother working through her neuroses and paranoias. In a play about factories and workers it'd be easy to let the female characters slip into the background, yet Miller makes the effort to keep her actively involved in the story, providing a critical core of pathos to the story.

Similarly impressive is the frazzled father/boss of the factory, in whom we detect the genes of Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman. Both characters are proud of their past successes yet have found themselves in a world in which obsolescence beckons. Each finds themselves a 20th century King Canute, desperately raging against a tide that's already lapping around their ankles.

No Villain is undoubtedly a worthy piece of drama. It does, however, bear the fingerprints of a sophomore piece. It raises several big arguments; the morality of working during a strike; choosing between your family and your politics; the importance of student idealism; and the practicality of everyday Communism. In 1936 Miller didn't yet have the nous to answer these questions - leaving them all unresolved in favour of resolving the central familial narrative. 

It'd be stupid to criticise No Villain for not having all the answers, after all this play is written by a 21 year student (albeit an extraordinarily talented one) on his spring break. It functions best as a primordial soup for Miller's future work, a promisingly tangled nest of complex character archetypes, keenly observed social situations and impactful political writing.

This particular production more than does the work justice. Performances are uniformly great, with particular credit to George Turvey's charismatic and sturdy Ben and Nesba Crenshaw's frazzled mother staring down the barrel of the Great Depression.

If you're a drama student this is a must see , maybe the ur-example of the concerns that would propagate throughout 20th century drama. If you're a 'mere' fan of theatre you'll be thrilled by a handsome play that, pleasantly, lives up its ambitious billing.


No Villain is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 9 Jan 2016. Tickets here.

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