A talent for ignoring things: Zoë Wanamaker in "All My Sons"
The set of Arthur Miller's All My Sons at the Apollo Theatre is so impressive that on the night I saw it, the audience applauded the set before the play had begun. The stage is filled with the lush backyard of an attractive 20th-century house, which has a porch and steps. There is some garden furniture, tasteful plantings and a young tree with a yellow ribbon tied around it. But what dominates both house and yard is a huge, overarching willow tree that almost seems alive.
In the first scene, the light dims into night, a rising wind makes the willow leaves shiver, large aircraft pass deafeningly overhead and a storm breaks out. A terrified middle-aged woman (Zoë Wanamaker) comes out in her nightclothes, and while she watches the sky and listens in horror, the young tree snaps in the gale. Clearly very distressed, for reasons we cannot know, the woman goes back inside. This is a powerful start, both menacing and suggestive: the yellow ribbon is a traditional American symbol and means that a woman is waiting for her man to return from war. The willow tree is, among other things, an ancient symbol of mourning.
Those who tend, like me, to think that Miller can be rather didactic and reductive, and altogether too much like G. B. Shaw, must have been surprised by the imaginative force of this unspoken scene. That might be because Miller didn't actually write it. There is no such scene in All My Sons. In the original version, the action opens on an August Sunday morning in the same backyard, with casual neighbourly gossip in post-war Middle America, though it is true the woman does later describe just such a storm scene to her husband and son. But Miller's detailed stage instructions for the set contain no yellow ribbon, and no overwhelming willow tree. He stipulates only closely planted poplars.
However, I think these additions are both justified and inspired. From the first, they give the play an emotional force that Miller productions and the writer himself often lack. The spirit of Miller owes to the director Howard Davies, the designer William Dudley and the exquisite performances of David Suchet, Zoë Wanamaker and Stephen Campbell Moore, a production of All My Sons that must be as good as it gets, and better, I'm tempted to think, than the playwright could have imagined. They have brought a creativity and subtlety to it that defy the curse of Shaw.
The play is set in 1946, and the plot has new resonance today: it has to do with sending young men to war without the equipment to keep them safe. The anti-hero Joe Keller (Suchet) is an American success story, a bluff, uneducated man who has built up a successful engineering business. His son Chris (Campbell Moore), now back from the war, works in the business but his other son Larry was a pilot and is missing in action. Joe's grieving wife (Wanamaker) refuses to believe Larry is dead and doesn't want to let his girl stop waiting for him and marry his brother Chris instead.