Arthur Miller’s 1994 play, which I wasn’t mad about at its National Theatre premiere, seems different to me now, its overloaded hysteria somehow channelled in Iqbal Khan’s production (first seen at the Tricycle, Kilburn, last year) to much better effect.
This is down to Antony Sher, whose manic performance as Phillip Gellburg (not “Goldberg” he keeps saying), the Brooklyn mortgage broker who’s messed up his job, and his marriage, is perfectly suited to the clodhopping hysteria of Miller’s theatrical thesis.
Which is, that, in 1938, Gellburg’s wife, Sylvia – beautifully and carefully played by Tara Fitzgerald – was rendered psychosomatically paralysed by reading about the Kristallnacht anti-Jewish riots in Vienna. And nobody’s doing anything about Hitler.
You can see Miller’s point: I feel ill every night just watching the news on TV. But there’s more. Gellburg – who’s having serious problems with his Jewish identity — has been failing in his duty between the sheets for twenty years. Sylvia is one seriously unhappy bunny, empathising with world problems, short of sex.
So the play, I see clearly now, is about a broken marriage with a thread of salvationist love running through it, just about. Sher's mesmeric heart attack acting leads to the inevitable, and the ending, boy, that’s something you don’t often see outside of a good day at Lourdes.
What’s more, there’s an upstage cellist (there always was, Miller specifies it) scratching away between scenes to add an unnecessary layer of portentousness, though I quite like Grant Olding’s music, and musician Laura Moody sure can make hay with the double-stopping and “col legno” extras.
The Gellburgs’ marriage is really a threesome, with Stanley Townsend’s immensely sympathetic, nicely pitched Dr Harry Hyman falling in love with Sylvia while meddling on the brink of – this is 1938, remember – psychoanalysis.
Khan’s production looks very good at the Vaudeville, set in a sort of marbled limbo (designed by Mike Britton) with practical onstage lighting and the ever present double bed switching angles between the blue mottled screens.
Brian Protheroe chips in with a well-dressed cypher as Gellburg’s employer – funny how his scenes with Sher are a less poignant echo of Death of a Salesman — and Caroline Lonq provides some suitably hysterical laughter, though not in the audience.
In the end, you’ll either buy Sher’s performance, or you won’t. It’s an artfully maintained caricature of a man eating himself inside out, destroyed by self-loathing, paranoia, too much intensity and rampant egomania. I don’t think it’s what Miller wrote, exactly, but it’s a real treat to see Sher firing indiscriminately on all cylinders.