“…there is no limit to human stupidity.” Arthur Miller’s 1980 play, The American Clock, is packed full of hugely relevant themes – but none stick in the mind quite as much as this thought from Arthur Robertson at the beginning of the final speech. Time and time again we see history repeat itself, yet somehow we never see it coming; prosperity, a swing to the left, a financial crash, a lurch to the far right – and the cycle punctuated by war. For our generation at least, this new production from the Old Vic (directed by Rachel Chavkin) could not come at a better time.
The play begins at a time of hope, as America is experiencing a fantastic boom in the years following the Great War – everybody owns a fortune in shares and nothing seems to be able to bring it to a halt. Then we reach 29 October 1929: Black Tuesday. The stock market crashes, families’ savings are wiped out, and unemployment swiftly rises; the Great Depression dominates the 1930s, only stopped in its tracks by World War Two. Our main focus is the Baum family (Lee, his father Moe and his mother Rose), which is modelled quite closely on Miller’s own experiences of the time – they go from wealth & comfort in Manhattan to poverty & uncertainty in Brooklyn, Lee putting his ambition of becoming a journalist on hold as college education becomes a luxury overnight. Farmers battle to get their land back, and others resort to desperate measures for just a bit of security.
However pertinent, a subject as potentially dry as this absolutely benefits from being presented in an original and engaging way: enter Rachel Chavkin! The Old Vic has been transformed once again, the stage projecting out with an additional bank of seats just behind the performance space; Chloe Lamford’s set mostly consists of boards for various share prices, which are adjusted during the early part of the play, as well as the central figure of the Baums’ grand piano. The revolve injects some dynamism in the limited space, and is also suggestive of the endless loop that is human history – round and round we go, with seemingly no control over if or when we can stop.
Music and dance feature heavily in this production, which is fittingly dubbed “A Vaudeville” by Miller following adjustments made for the National Theatre’s 1984 version; period music is played live onstage by the band, and composer Justin Ellington & sound designer Darron L West have created a score that combines the past & present, sampling 1930s music alongside modern beats. There are some lively dance sequences that usher in new events (choreographed by Ann Yee), but the most exciting & innovative use of dance comes late on in the first act, where Ewan Wardrop engages in a thrilling tap sequence as the President of General Electric, Ted Quinn. Wardrop taps away with barely a chance to sit still, as he tells a journalist the story of his career, also engaging in some call & response with the band. This is a hugely entertaining way of highlighting Quinn’s maverick status, giving the champion of small businesses & democracy an opportunity to enjoy some well-earned adulation.
Interestingly, Chavkin has decided to have three different sets of Baums, each taking precedence for about a third of the play – the intent is to try and better represent variations on the current ‘typical’ American family, having them begin as white Jews, followed by South Asian, and then African-American. It’s a largely successful ploy, as the play has quite a fragmented feel to it anyway, though as the Baums’ story is a bit more linear it may be more helpful to have a clear progression in age noted – despite it only charting events across a decade.
There may be a relatively large cast but quite a bit of doubling is still required, with some actors taking on upwards of four roles. Rosie Elnile’s costume design ensures that it’s immediately apparent who’s who at any given moment – and the Baums have particularly distinctive outfits to single them out from the rest. Francesca Mills shines in each of her seven roles, though her turns as Communist party member Edie, grief-stricken Diana Morgan, and potential teenage bride-to-be Doris Gross are especially memorable. Golda Rosheuvel is excellent value as Irene, taking no shit from anyone and attempting to unite people at a time of great division – her soulful vocals in Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do are as exceptional as ever. Clarke Peters brings his charismatic presence to the role of Arthur Robertson, clearly & engagingly taking the audience through some key moments in the play.
At around three hours long (any attempts to shorten the running time seem to be negated by typically late starts and over-extended intervals), it will be a bit of a test of endurance for some – and the show’s style is bound not to be everybody’s cup of tea. However, for me it’s a truly compelling & startling piece, and this production excels at teasing out its relevance to current affairs without completely ramming it down your throat.
My verdict? An innovative take on a lesser-known Arthur Miller play, bringing the Vaudeville elements to the fore – as startlingly relevant as it ever has been.
The American Clock runs at the Old Vic until 30 March 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.