Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Tricia Kelly and Victoria Yeates - Playing Miller's Wives in Death of A Salesman and The Crucible

If you think of the body of work written by Arthur Miller, what becomes immediately clear is that these are men's plays. The heroes put on stage by this great chronicler of the the post World War Two souring of the American dream are patriarchal and unreconstructed blue-collar figures. As the plays also reveal, they are damaged goods, messed up by the things they aspire to in a system they have no control over.

Behind these men who provide such great parts that allow male actors to vent, winning all the plaudits as they go, are far quieter but even greater women. This should be made clear as two Miller productions arrive in Scotland this month. Next week, the ever enterprising Selladoor theatre company brings their co-production of The Crucible to the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. The week after, the King's Theatre, Edinburgh hosts the Royal and Derngate, Northampton's look at Death of A Salesman.

The Crucible charts the hysteria that ensues in the seventeenth century puritan town of Salem after a group of teenage girls are caught dancing in the woods. Written in the wake of the McCarthyite exposure of alleged communist activities in 1950s America, Miller's play also follows the rise and fall of John Proctor, who committed adultery with the girls' precocious ring-leader, Abigail Williams.

Death of A Salesman, written in 1949, four years before The Crucible appeared, follows the decline of Willy Loman, an ageing salesman struggling to get by, but who is too caught up in his own macho pride to tell his family.

In each play, as things spiral out of control for their protagonists in radically different ways, it is the men's wives who keep everything together. They also provide emotional support for their husbands in ways that for those watching the play it's easy to overlook. Yet without Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible and Linda Loman in Death of A Salesman, neither John or Willy could survive as long as they do.

“Elizabeth goes on a really massive journey throughout the course of the play,” says Victoria Yeates, who plays her in Douglas Rintoul's production of The Crucible for Selladoor and the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch. “She's very earthy, very grounded and very stoic. As a puritan she's got this real sense of duty, both to her religion and to John, and I suppose that makes her very immalleable. Obviously the play is in part an allegory about what was going on in America at the time it was written, but behind all that there's this huge love story, and when John has an affair, Elizabeth has to learn to forgive him, and that's huge.”

Linda Loman plays an equally significant role in Death of A Salesman. This is something that Tricia Kelly, who plays her in Abigail Graham's production, recognises only too well.

“She's the strongest person in the play,” Kelly says of Linda. “Obviously Willy is the play's protagonist, and it's about his downfall, but on the other hand, Miller has written a wonderful study of someone who is categorically not a weak woman. Linda keeps the whole thing rolling. She has propped up her husband and become his rock in a way that is often misunderstood – and I think I did – but I think she is extraordinary.

“There is obviously the factor of what a man in 1949 expects a wife to be, but Linda supports Willy whether he's right or wrong, come what may, and she doesn't have a job, but she's not in any way subservient or demure. She doesn't have any kind of life beyond her family, but she also adores her husband. She loves the bones of him, but she's also left with this sense of disappointment.”

In terms of how some of Miller's female characters turned out, particularly in relation to the infidelities of his male characters, Yeates points to the playwright's autobiography, Timebends.

“If you read Miller's book, he talks a lot about his first wife Mary, who had a huge influence on the way he wrote women,” says Yeates, best known to current TV audiences as Sister Winifred in Call The Midwife. “Arthur and Mary met at university, and she had quite a profound effect on Arthur. They read things, and there was a real intellectual link between them. They were equals, and were both on the same level in the way that Elizabeth and John are. Then Arthur started up his affair with Marilyn Monroe, who inflated his ego, and you can see the same thing with Abigail and John. But because Arthur and Mary were equals, she wasn't going to flatter his ego like that, and why should she?”

Given Kelly's background acting at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre during its 1970s peak and working with other companies including 7:84 and some of the radical feminist troupes of the era, she wonders how she might have looked upon Linda then.

“As a child of the sixties and the first wave of feminism, I had very different expectations then,” she says. “If I was a younger and angrier actress, as I have been, I think I'd have judged her more harshly. As a young feminist I'd be asking why she accepted everything she did instead of walking out, but as one matures you realise things are a bit more complex, and I think I understand her a lot more now.”

At the end of each play, the wives are left very much alone. While in The Crucible Elizabeth's fate is sealed, for Linda, there may be some kind of future ahead.

“Elizabeth has to let her soul be saved,” says Yeates, “and leaving her family behind the way she does, that's some decision, but she has such heart-breaking integrity. The scene at the end where she breaks down and you see her soften, that works on so many different levels, and you're having to play about five different things at one. She loved John, but she hates him as well, because she feels betrayed. On one level the play is about standing up for your beliefs, but when you're in a relationship as Elizabeth and John are, you have to take joint responsibility for things in the way she does, and that's really modern.”

For Linda, as Kelly observes, there is a chance for a life beyond what Miller has written.

“She's free,”says Kelly. “That's reflected in her last words at the end of the play, when she's talking about being free from debt, but she's also free from having to look after Willy, and she's probably left wondering what that means. There is an observable syndrome among women who become widows who go on to have another life. They've spent their whole life looking after their families as Linda has done, and then the worst happens, and they go on to have a few years of liberation, and they rediscover themselves. There are real possibilities for Linda, which is quite exciting, and though you don't see any of that in the play's closing moments, I don't think she'll be dressed in black for the rest of her life. It's more of a sense that she's free, now what?”

The Crucible, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, June 12-17; Death of A Salesman, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, June 20-24.


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