Play: The American Clock
Theatre: The Old Vic
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Rachel Chavkin
Review by Joy Francis
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller remains relevant and ubiquitous, with five of his plays being staged in London alone between now and the spring.
The American Clock, one of two Miller-penned plays making an appearance at The Old Vic, was crafted in the 1980s but is steeped in the history and devastation wrought by The Great Depression in the 1930s.
Central to the story is the Baum family, played by an ensemble of actors reflecting different ethnic backgrounds (Jewish, Asian and African American). The embodiment of the American Dream, Moe is a self made man with most of his money tied up in stocks and shares. His wife Rose is effervescent, charming and artistic, while their teenage son Lee is a free spirit, smart and philosophical, finding his way in the world.
Miller charts their sharp financial and emotional descent after the stock market crash of 1929 against the countrywide loss, while dissecting the façade and fallacy of the stock market and systems that operate to benefit corporations, not ordinary people.
Despite investing genius Arthur Robinson (the equally ubiquitous Clarke Peters) warning ‘the little people’ to cash in their shares after noticing consumer items were languishing, unsold, in warehouses, he is ignored. Instead, they cling onto President Herbert Hoover’s assurances that all is well. They believe in the stock market, despite it being based on speculation, and they worship at the church of corporate titan General Electric as a sure bet for their investment.
The consequence is more painful and destabilising than they could ever imagine. Overnight, shares plummet to level of worthlessness. Farms are repossessed or auctioned off. Men shoot themselves in shame. Meanwhile, the Baum family is forced to downsize from a plush 11 room apartment in affluent New York to cramped accommodation in a less than salubrious area.
Lee’s plan to go to university is thwarted. Money men entrusted with millions of hard working citizens’ hard earned dollars throw themselves from their office windows. All the while the spectre of Hitler and fascism hovers in the background while communism finds its footing among the dispossessed.
Over the years, largely through vignette-styled scenes, we hear the stories of pain, loss and despair. That of Taylor and his wife who lose their farm, twice, after a violent auction. Exhausted couples teetering on their feet for thousands of hours at dance marathons, vying for the much coveted prize money.
Rose’s sister Fanny (a funny Julie Jupp) encourages her son Sidney (Fred Haig) to woo an impressionable 13 year old whose mother owns the building they live in. She believes if he stays the course and marries her at 17, he would live rent free in the basement. Fanny’s outlandish idea is triggered by their possible eviction.
The American Clock is an ambitious, visually busy and occasionally distracting production. Clarke Peters moves from narrator to playing multiple roles, with ease. But as a consequence, we lose out on having the full African American Baum family experience as Peters plays Moe alongside Golda Rosheuvel’s Rose, particularly their relationship with their son Lee (Jyuddah Jaymes).
Like the Baum family, the play has many identities and Chavkin has her work cut out to make Miller’s disjointed, plotless play have coherence. It feels more like a documentary with elements of a musical with its sprinkle of songs and unexpected dance numbers (watch out for the tap dancing General Electric president). All the while it manages to retain some drama, infused with Hollywood filmic sensibilities. The Coen Brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy is one cinematic reference that springs to mind along with the Sydney Pollack classic, They Shoot Horses Don’t They.
Then there is the rotating inner stage. It is a dizzying experience when combined with actors frequently wheeling props on and off the stage. There is a lot to negotiate optically while taking in a detailed narrative. As a result, some of the emotional drive and despair is lost.
What Chavkin excels at is creating a mood, an atmosphere, a ‘vibe’, supported by strong period accents, which sing 1930s. Archive recordings and music from the era, such as the much covered ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’, takes you back to watching matinee RKO movies at the weekend in the 1970s and 1980s.
Racial politics are ever-present. Although primarily focused on New York, we dip into Iowa and Louisiana, were a black man says: ‘The depression has finally hurt the white people,’ which is significant because ‘black people had nothing in the first place’.
The performances are stellar, and the cast deserve a medal for stamina and recall as they seamlessly move between characters. Clarke Peters makes everything look easy and is at a stage in his career where he is almost bigger than the parts he plays.
Amber Aga’s beautifully compassionate Rose is a delight while Golda Rosheuvel steals a few scenes in act two, especially her heart-stopping performance Rose on the edge of a breakdown. Golda Rosheuvel also commands the stage as a wonderful singer.
As for Francesca Mills who plays seven parts, including Fanny’s landlady’s 13 year old daughter Doris, she is a bundle of talent, utterly charming and convincing in each role.
The American Clock is a slow burn. A tour de force, it is full of ambition, not all of which is realised. There is also an unsettling feeling of de ja vu as we watch people lose their livelihoods and identity, be lied to by politicians and question the country they thought they knew. As we are being enveloped by the Brexit debacle, unaffordable housing, zero hour contracts and key workers struggling to live, we should be able to empathise.
The narrator asks: How much has really changed? The honest answer is, not much.
The American Clock is at The Old Vic until Saturday 30 March 2019.