All My Sons
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Guardian, Wednesday 17 January 2007 18.04 GMT
The cynics like to point out the weaknesses of Arthur Miller’s 1947 tragedy. They talk about the gauche symbolism of the fallen tree planted for Larry, the son missing in action. They question the stagey way that Larry’s old girlfriend Ann holds on to an incriminating letter until the final act. And they sneer at Miller’s slavish debt to Ibsen.
Such gripes can be met point by point. The tree may indeed symbolise the broken family, but Miller’s main use of it is to debunk the superstitions of Kate, the mother who puts her faith in horoscopes and portents. It’s an idea the playwright would later return to in The Crucible. As for Larry’s letter, Ann’s revelation is not melodramatic but psychologically consistent: she keeps it until the pressure is too great to do otherwise. And if the influence of Ibsen is plain, who could deny Miller’s own distinctive vision of the malaise in the American dream?
But as John Dove’s superb production shows, all these arguments evaporate in the face of the play’s enormous emotional pull. Sixty years on, we’re still familiar with mothers waiting for news from the front line and big business profiting from war. This gives the play a certain topicality, but it is Miller’s timeless plea for social responsibility that moves us most profoundly. The cynics are looking for excuses: what really upsets them is the playwright’s idealism, his argument that we should be answerable to something greater than the survival of the business, that we “can be better”.
Playing Chris Keller, the high-minded surviving son, Richard Conlon brilliantly carries the emotional weight of this argument, building to a devastating clash with Stuart Milligan’s gravel-voiced Joe that shows the tragedy is as much his – and his society’s – as it is his blinkered father’s.
The performers have a feel also for Miller’s dry humour, whether it’s Kathryn Howden, magnificently controlling as the mother in denial, or Meg Fraser, stingingly funny as a deadpan neighbour. Smashing through the suburban calm, they ride on waves of anger and laughter until the play’s sorrowful wound is exposed to spine-tingling effect.
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