In my original review of this production when it first opened at the National's Cottesloe in July 2000, I admired both play and performance greatly but complained that the traverse staging, with the audience seated facing each other on two sides of the garden of the house that is viewed side-on, meant that there were inevitably many moments when actors had their backs to one or other side of the audience. As a result, key speeches and reactions were missed.
Now that the play has transferred to the larger Lyttelton, the production has been restaged and we observe it head-on, with the house straight ahead. This change alone refocuses the production substantially and for the better, to bring it into even closer focus. You may not be able to smell the grass anymore, but the pain of loss, lies and bereavement that are at the play's shattering heart are felt even more keenly than before when you can see it in every anguished turn of the head and emotion played across the face.
Howard Davies's brilliant, multiple Olivier Award-winning production has also been partially recast in several key roles. American actress Laurie Metcalf - best known for her role as Jackie in TV's Roseanne - has a tough act to follow in the footsteps of Julie Walters as Kate Keller. But Metcalf is no less fiercely and movingly wounded as a mother desperate to cling onto the hope that her pilot son, reported missing in action during the war, will return home. Though this is her British stage debut, Metcalf is no slouch when it comes to stage work, being a founder member of Chicago's celebrated Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Intriguingly, as one actress best known for her comic roles is replaced by another of similar repute, it becomes evident just how close the playing of comedy and tragedy really are. In either case, the qualities required are truth; and Metcalf has it in stunning, stirring abundance.
So has Madeleine Potter, replacing Catherine McCormack as the missing son's sweetheart, who is now seeking solace in Chris, her ex-love's surviving brother. Last seen in the West End production of Madame Melville, Potter - an American actress long resident here - charts a very visible and painful journey towards getting what she wants, even if the knowledge she has ultimately detonates and destroys the whole edifice of self-deception that Kate's hopes are built upon.
James Hazledine reprises his beautifully understated performance as Joe, and Ben Daniels returns in blisteringly muscular form (in every sense) as Chris, the part for which he won an Olivier for Best Supporting Actor.
A fine evening has just got finer. Not to be missed.
Note: The following review dates from July 2000 and the production's original run at the NT Cottesloe.
Arthur Miller's searing family drama All My Sons, originally premiered just after the second world war and concerning a tragedy that occurred during it, proceeds by a series of wrenching revelations to an emotional climax of devastating force and fury.
Only his second play, it's the identical technique Miller employed in his greatest masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, premiered a year later. In both cases, his subject is the family and the secrets lurking within them. But whereas the tragedy of Salesman's Willy Loman is compassionately drawn, there's no such relief for Joe Keller of All My Sons, who as proprietor of a factory which manufactured aircraft parts may have been to blame for sending 21 war pilots to their death when his factory supplied faulty cylinder heads for their planes. He avoided responsibility, however, by claiming illness the day they were produced, and instead the foreman on duty that day is now in prison.
One of Joe's pilot sons, Larry, was also lost in the war, but Joe's wife, Kate, refuses to believe that he won't be returning home. Meanwhile, their other son, Chris, has started to woo Larry's fiancee, Ann, for himself. Ann's father, however, is the man who is now in prison for the wartime crime. And when her brother, George, returns from visiting their father, the stage is set for the truth to finally be revealed.
Out of this complex labryinth of the conflicting claims of idealism and capitalism, Miller provides a deeply moral and involving debate on conscience and culpability, and the consequences of individual action on society.
Howard Davies's production has some wonderful and revealing performances, but they're not always seen to best effect on the traverse staging he's provided. With the audience seated facing each other on two sides of the garden of Joe and Kate's house, itself beautifully constructed at the far end of the auditorium by designer William Dudley, there are inevitably many moments when actors have their backs to one or other side of the audience. This means you miss key speeches and reactions.
However, despite that, Julie Walters's Kate is a wonderfully mature and moving portrait of a woman in pain and denial that banishes most (but perhaps not all) signs of her greatest comic creation, Mrs Overall; while Ben Daniels is incredibly muscular, in all senses, as the son Chris who comes to a howling realisation of his family's terrible tragedy. Catherine McCormack's controlled Ann, who ultimately holds the awful secret of her fiancee's fate, gives a terrifyingly poised but heartbreaking account of a pivotal role, as does Charles Edwards as her brother.
In spite of some of the staging problems, this is one of the most brilliant and moving plays in London, with some of the best performances in town. Highly recommended.