London--It was 1956 and the Royal Court's production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger that turned Terence Rattigan, the leading local playwright of the previous few decades, into a captain of the old guard.
How gallant of the pertinent critics to jettison everything that had gone before--not unlike what happened in the art world when abstract expressionism unceremoniously shunted representational artists aside.
What usually occurs after such rude treatment, though, is that cooler heads eventually prevail and baby-with-the-bathwater-victim Rattigan has been reassessed and welcomed back on stages to prove once again his dramaturgical expertise.
The current example is The Deep Blue Sea, which is enjoying a superb rediscovery. (Karel Reisz did mount one maybe 20 years ago.) The star is Helen McCrory, who's giving the peak performance of her notable career as philandering wife Hester Collyer--and this is a Hester who deserves a big "A" on her frock front.
Found nearly dead of a surfeit of aspirins and gas in a downscale London neighborhood, she recovers her life but not her spirit after boyfriend Freddie Page (Tom Burke) forgot her birthday. He's an ex-test pilot and a seemingly full-blown cad for whom she left her husband William Collyer (Peter Sullivan), a revered judge, 10 months earlier.
The Deep Blue Sea--Helen believes she's caught between the devil and the deep...--follows the lost soul over the next 18 or so hours as landlady Mrs. Elton (Marion Bailey), neighbors Philip and Ann Welch (Hubert Burton, Yolanda Kettle) and Mr. Miller (Nick Fletcher), a doctor no longer practicing after having been involved in a scandal (possibly homosexual), attempt to come to her aid.
So does abandoned husband William, but Hester will have none of it. She's too wrapped up in Freddie, too desperate to make him stay with her in what's essentially the character study of a woman in love but painfully aware that love is a complex state of affairs that frequently don't jibe.
It could be said that though director Carrie Cracknell, lighting designer Guy Hoare and sound designer Peter Rice apply flourishes to disguise the only slightly creaky situation, it remains--but doesn't really matter. It could also be said that the huge flat that set designer Tom Scutt fills the wide Lyttelton stage with hardly suggests the shabbiness in which Hester has chosen to live in sin with Freddie.
By the way, Freddie is the real irony here. A hero during World War II, he's now a society discard and incensed about it. That's right. He may be the original angry young man, a true precursor to Osborne's Jimmy Porter. And to think no one at the time Rattigan was being shown the door noticed he'd foreshadowed Osborne.
A New York City-born friend of mine who's lived here for some time and goes regularly to the theater claims he's hard put to name a single play written by an English playwright that contains a sympathetic American character.
I tend to agree and can now add that one of the ugliest Americans ever to appear in a play premiering here is spreading his bad odor in Sunset at Villa Thalia at the National's Dorfman. It's the work of Alexi Kaye Campbell, the son of a Greek father and British Mother.
The hateful American is Harvey (Ben Miles), who works for the American government (read CIA) and is clearly involved in various Chilean and Greek regime changes carried out in the 1960s to stop any suspected infiltration of Communism
As Campbell's indictment gets underway--and I'm not claiming it's specious to the core--Harvey and blond wife June (Elizabeth McGovern, proving there's life after Downton Abbey) are dining with English playwright Theo (Sam Crane) and his actress wife Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) at the Greek villa the latter couple has rented for the summer.
Pippa seems reluctant about their having extended the invitation. Theo is less disturbed about the dinner for four and becomes less so when Harvey, casing the joint, suggests that the vacationing couple would likely be able to purchase the beautifully positioned home at rock-bottom cost. That's given the status of the country's economy--about which Harvey may have inside info.
Before the first act, set in 1967, ends, a few other facts emerge, including Harvey's attraction to Charlotte (and possibly hers to him). He likes a change from the well-meaning but dim-bulbed June. There's also Harvey's insisting he's falling in love with Theo, platonically, of course. One fact the audience may dispute is Harvey's claim that he's a good man who's been entangled in international upheavals he greatly regrets.
As act two starts, it's 1974 and again Harvey and June are stopping at the villa Theo and Charlotte have owned for seven years and share with children Adrian (either Thomas Berry, Billy Marlow or Ethan Rouse) and Rosalind (either Sophia Ally, Dixie Egerickx or Scarlett Nunes). Though Harvey and Theo are still pals (Campbell never satisfactorily explains the extent of their relationship), Charlotte is even more troubled about Harvey's past and then even more so when June unburdens herself of her fear of, and for, him.
Directed well by Simon Godwin (Hildegard Bechtler designed the coveted villa with two-level patio), Campbell's achievement is writing three-dimensional figures, whose individual psyches and the conflicts caused when they clash are utterly credible. By the denouement, there's even reason to muster a modicum of sympathy for the dreaded Harvey, certainly as Miles fleshes him out.
Does the title No Villains mean anything to you? It didn't to me either, but it means plenty now. It's a one-act play that Arthur Miller wrote when, at 20, he was still a University of Michigan student and looking to win a playwriting prize that would have fetched him Depression money he desperately needed.
Though he has acknowledged it's the most autobiographical play he ever wrote--about a once-lucrative family business failing during a strike--it has never been produced until now.
Thanks to director Sean Turner, who learned of its existence and tracked it down, it's just moved from Islington's Old Red Lion Theatre to Trafalgar Studios 2. Slightly fewer thanks go to Turner for how he's handled the drama, which in any case has Miller's themes and touches throughout. Everything that motivated him to write about moral conflict and familial discontent is foreshadowed in the 80-minute work.
It's also the most Jewish of any Miller opus. Coat manufacturer Abe Simon (David Bromley) and Esther Simon (Nesba Crenshaw) have two sons, Ben (George Turvey), who joined the business, and Arnold (Alex Forsyth), who's the Miller stand-in and refuses to help at the factory because of his "Communist ideas" about not crossing a picket line.
There's no question that this is a volatile time and certainly for the nearly destitute Simons, but Turner has them and those around them, including sister Maxine (Helen Coles) and ailing Grandpa Garnett (Kenneth Jay) behave like rage-aholics on steroids. In time the relentless shouting and jabbing alienates spectators from actors. Nonetheless, the good news is there's a new Arthur Miller play to add to his important canon.