Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2
Opened 16 September, 2011
In a couple of weeks the Day of German Unity will be celebrated... not on the anniversary of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, because that date, November 9, is also the anniversary of the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogroms in 1938. The best of Arthur Miller’s late plays (dating from 1994) hinges on a related avoidance. Is the hysterical paralysis of Brooklyn mortgage-broker’s wife Sylvia Gellburg a response to the breaking news of that atrocity, to her husband Philip’s lack of concern with it, to his denial of his Jewishness, or to the long sexlessness of their marriage? Of course, it is a broth of all these factors, and so Miller’s play cannot help being a little confused as well. The most powerful scenes in the second act come when first Sylvia and then Philip engage in intense, urgent duologues with the doctor treating her, but their remarks – often, in fact, bewildered questions – seem usually unconnected with each other’s, or, indeed, with each character’s own preceding words.
Iqbal Khan’s production, although largely recast since its Tricycle première a year ago, was always a West End cert with Antony Sher in the central role. His Philip Gellburg is wrapped tighter than a present from your mum, repressed about his marriage and religion alike, about his role both in the world and in the conjugal bed. This is one of Sher’s finest performances, as the self-imposed bonds keeping him so constricted twang under ever greater strain until they finally burst asunder. The excellent Lucy Cohu is replaced as Sylvia by the even better Tara Fitzgerald. I have remarked before how Fitzgerald has entered her prime since outgrowing the “young beauty of the British screen” label; here, her frustration is eloquent even though she is largely immobile in a bed or at best a wheelchair throughout the play. Some of Sylvia’s pent-up energies are released on Dr Hyman, a role in which Stanley Townsend is well cast: burly, not quite conventionally handsome yet magnetic.
Miller as a writer was always more comfortable with articulation than evasion, so sometimes when he cuts through the confusion he can lay matters out too baldly. But this is a fine reminder that even in his late 70s, his sense of the vital connections between the personal and the public was no less keen and vital than in his heyday.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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