Life appears to be very much elsewhere at the start of Jemima Levick’s stately revival of Arthur Miller’s devastating dissection of truth, honour and the wider consequences of ignoble actions. It’s there in the broken tree that lies bare and leafless in the dirt of Alex Lowde’s fortress-like and barely domestic exterior, flanked by its similarly barren brothers who loom large at what is effectively ringside as if guarding a tomb. It’s there too in the slow-motion chimes of David Paul Jones’ sepulchral score, which seems to hang hazily in the air like the ghost of Joe and Kate Keller’s unseen son Larry, missing in action during the Second World War three and a half years before.
Most of all, the anguish of absence is etched onto the face of Irene Macdougall as Kate, who wanders through her half-life with a brittle and broken martyrdom. If she ever faced up to the truth of what happened when her husband’s aircraft engine factory let planes fly with defective parts, she would shatter into a million tear-stained pieces. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance by Macdougall, capturing all the desperate sense of barely keeping it together following the loss of a loved one.
Into this arena are hurled a mesh of intertwining emotional curveballs, first from Joe and Kate’s other son Chris (Daniel Cahill) and Larry’s girl Anne (Amy Kennedy), the seemingly peppy daughter of Joe’s partner who ended up in prison. Then there is Anne’s angry brother George, played with down-at-heel obsessiveness by Ewan Donald. At the centre of this is Barrie Hunter’s Joe, whose surface bluffness eventually reveals him as the vulnerable stooge of a system where making a buck is all that counts, and everything else is collateral damage.
In this sense, Hunter’s performance and Levick’s production overall deconstructs the play’s inherent machismo. Yet beyond its comments on how capitalism corrupts if you push good men and women into corners enough, it cuts to the over-riding humanity of that. Like the aircraft engines, the Kellers are damaged goods, destined never to fly again. The crash, when it comes, points up a failure of collective responsibility for each other that highlights an ideology broken from the top down.
The Herald, February 28th 2019