Phoenix Theatre Company has a challenge on their hands to pull off a masterful version of All My Sons, a play with a cult following, written by a playwright of great standing, Arthur Miller.
Inevitably the first concern that comes to mind is how the cast and crew have interacted with the production history, including two film adaptations, of this theatre classic. Zac Tiplady, playing Chris Keller, immediately deflates my curiosity by remarking that productions online are generally ‘hard to come by’. However Nicki Orrell, Director, adds that nevertheless she had once seen a National Theatre production of the play when she was around 14, which inspired her to the extent that the play itself ‘had stuck as my favourite Arthur Miller’.
The plot revolves around a small circle of people, a section of a white-picket-fence neighbourhood, which is rattled by novel realizations concerning the mechanical capabilities of planes in World War Two. Based on a true story, it is a drama which Miller uses to explore themes that can be found in his other works, namely the undermining of the American dream and the fragility of our ideas of both genders, which in his interpretations somehow always stray from the expected.
Darcy van Eerten, playing Annie Bayliss, agrees that Miller plays are often male-dominated and that frequently, as Orrell adds, they portray ‘a stereotype of femininity’. Yet Annie Bayliss is more complex than she may first appear to be, as she is ‘so driven by the goal of getting married that she is willing to hurt people’, which means both actor and director have managed to bring out of her more than is on the page. However it is Kate Keller which Orrell believes ‘is one of the most interesting characters to play’ for actors seeking to display a range, having to balance between being ‘motherly, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and sometimes cheerful, and all in a New York accent’.
Tiplady adds that male characters in the play have to also deal with their own challenges, as Chris Keller has a brother, Larry, who never shows on stage. He envisions the relationship, despite some indications in the script, as one where Chris pines to be like Larry, who has ‘permanently done the right thing’. His parents exacerbate the problem by constantly mentioning Larry in his presence, making sure he has ‘a chip or three on his shoulder’ throughout the entire play.
Orrell feels that far from being isolated in Miller’s time period, many of the messages that can be extricated from his plays are still relevant, such as the desire to ‘make America great again’ by contemporary U.S. political figures. Miller is also concerned with the idealization, which may happen regardless of country, to the extent of a belief that ‘anything can happen if you work hard enough’. Eerten says that furthermore ‘every American that I’ve encountered truly believes’ in the American dream.
The fact that the play is a ‘one set show’ has meant Orrell could ‘really focus on the details’ of the set. This has extended further than adapting Fountains Hall to a front porch, as in order to create a fully immersive experience for the audience, the production team have capitalized on the naturalistic style of the play in order to add a range of atmospheric soundscapes and lighting effects, throughout the duration of the play and during the interval. Soundscapes are also used to create a certain mood for characters, as for the ‘mother’s muddled thoughts’ the crew has added ‘various haunting noises’ to emphasize the psychological turmoil, as the conflict in the Keller family gradually escalates.
Much like the apple tree breaking, the Keller family will be able to deal with the consequences of the war and their actions only in a haphazard and tumultuous way. As Orrell has decided that Miller’s excessive stage directions can be occasionally sacrificed for the sake of fluidity, the play is set to be a triumph of naturalistic theatre, exploring an inter-generational conflict that has the power to captivate all.
All My Sons will be performed in Fountains Hall, Grey College, from Tuesday the 15th of March until Thursday the 17th of March at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Mubasil Chaudhry