All My Sons

All My Sons

By Arthur Miller
National Theatre Live
Picturehouse, Liverpool
26th June 2019

Reviewed By Ashley McGovern

There’s a ghost in the marketing machine. At various stages in National Theatre Live productions you’ll be asked to join in the ‘conversation’ on Twitter. This is a trendy method of fabricating communality between all those sitting in cinemas, as opposed to in front of the actual encore performance at The Old Vic. They don’t make it explicit, but they’re obviously after a specific tenor of response. What they want is fizzing adulation, not commentary or opinion, so why they can’t stick to their scheduled posts, with their various tints of critical praise, audience selfies and behind-the-scenes press shots, is beyond me. One final gripe about the whole NT Live set-up. The trailers were repeated twice; this was annoying not only out of tedium but because they are edited in such a frantic way as to offer nothing understandable about the show. Anyway, onto dissecting Miller. (Note: The fruits of this reviewer’s Twitter contributions will appear indented, in the same order they were hurriedly published live last week, throughout the following precis. Ask, and it shall be given you).

@ntlive Errrrr who was Bill Pullman’s speech coach for this? Fat Albert? #AllMySons

@ntlive Larry’s been missing for three years, and Kate still thinks he’s coming back. Where does she seriously think he’s been all this time, InterRailing? #AllMySons

All My Sons is one of those day-long family tragedies, a specialty of American drama. The turn from daylight to twilight is enough to make dissolute the nuclear family and crumble a particular brand of confident American capitalism. Miller’s chosen moralistic crux concerns war profiteering during WW11. Joe Keller (Bill Pullman) is a loving father and established businessman, skeptical of daily news, wry about modern life and anxious about this wife’s fragile hopes. Their son Larry went missing during the war and hasn’t reappeared. Kate Keller (Sally Field) is convinced he will return, and no one dares truly upset or unpin her illusions for fear the family will fall. Sally Field has mastered how to be domineering; her Kate forces various members of the immediate and extended family into argumentative corners and then quickly evades the bitter replies. It’s a brilliant performance full of jittering anxiety and stifling maternalism.

@ntlive 1 peppercorn sauce, two medium…sorry this isn’t the Wetherspoons app #AllMySons

@ntlive Jenna Coleman isn’t doing much for me here, sadly. Very very meh. Arthur Meh-ller looool #AllMySons

The play’s intense presentness, excellently conveyed by Max Jones and Richard Howell’s lighting and set design, could go on forever. The stage could be described as suburban pastoral: a homely yet disorderly backyard, not entirely free from the type of literalised portent you find in Shakespeare, with his lashes of bad weather and fallen trees; in this case, a snapped apple tree planted in memory of Larry. Into this, figures of the past materialise to churn the tragic sequence of forced confessions.

Chief among them is Larry’s girlfriend Ann Deever, played by Jenna Coleman. Her presence and undeterred will to settle down with the Keller’s other son, Chris, is the mechanism that will bring everything to a finish. Sadly, Jenna Coleman’s performance is weak; she’s not charming enough to warrant all the praise heaped on her by other characters, and when she starts to doubt the sanctity of the Keller’s filial bond, it’s a pleading, exhausted, weak-willed turn. You never feel she changes through the whole play. Coleman slides and gently skips around the stage like the Keller’s family pet, questioning nothing in particular. (Side note, I’m convinced she plays the whole thing in a Canadian accent. The play is set in Ohio. This was immensely distracting.)

@ntlive Mustard!! I mean, Jenna! One for the Alan Partridge fans out there #AllMySons

@ntlive Woops forgot to get in a babysitter #CallMySons

@ntlive OK Pullman’s voice is getting grating AF #AllMySons

Morally, the storm centres around Joe’s decision to sell faulty aviation equipment to the US military (especially knowing his son was in the air force). Even years later he sees the matter as an unfortunate ethical lapse, convincing himself that the money gained from his mercenary will to do business was used for the health and happiness of his family. The mid-century century nuclear family cult has a strong advocate in Mr Keller – to his credit, Pullman plays this half-bemused, half-mortified section of Miller’s superbly written script very well. Naturally, the younger generation, scarred by the battlefield, convinced of a socialist solution to post-war malaise, are disgusted. This leads to the final act of tragic atonement and commiseration; a very Greek finale indeed.

Even if his arguments tend to emphasise a type of hypermasculine war-buddy socialism, a literal brotherhood of men rising up with new consciences, Miller is very convincing on how simple actions have wide consequences, the disastrous visibility of which can lead to new political ways of thinking. All this is good, even if the practical elements of the corruption seem faulty too. Could Joe’s business really have had such an important P40 contract with the US military? The dialogue presents the Keller-Deever factory in terms of an efficient local cobblers, not a hulking capitalist enterprise that’s benefitted from the war chest.

@ntlive I get it now: Keller means Killer. Like that WW2 poem back in GCSEs where badger really meant ‘bad German’. Clever stuff dis #AllMySons

@ntlive NEW RULZ! Miller’s Gun: even if a gun is never mentioned in any of the acts, one must be used #AllMySons #spoiler

@ntlive Anyone else ashamed of their father? Let’s get some stories going guyz!!! #AllMySons

All the same, any critique over small details pails in front Miller’s command of secrecy. All My Sons is a miracle of construction. Both in the Ibsenite sense of splicing a nuanced moral lesson over three well-made acts, but also in a further direction. At its crudest we have a family secret drama, mainly the war time sins of the father, Joe Keller. But this secret is commonly known in the neighbourhood; it was covered widely in the regional press and the locals that peer over the fences in Miller’s world have just about forgiven Keller’s manifest anti-patriotic betrayal. It’s so open and accessible, in fact, that Kate assumes the whole family and extended relatives knew about it already. Miller has shrouded the central sin in accessibility and common knowledge, rather than darkest secrecy. This is the central achievement; to strike a moving social tragedy out of the commonly known yet unacknowledged. The balancing act is marvellously written and well conveyed in Jeremy Herrin’s new version.

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