Fear eats the soul: cast members of The Crucible at the Old Vic. Photo: Alastair Muir/Rex
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Mark Lawson: What would Arthur Miller have made of Operation Yewtree?

Two of the standout London productions of this year are the scorching version of The Crucible at the Old Vic and the Young Vic’s brilliant rethinking of A View from the Bridge.

Dramatists can rapidly go out of fashion, as Arthur Miller painfully learned when he was largely spurned by Broadway during the last three decades of his career. But, ahead of next October’s birth centenary, a traditional point for re-evaluation, Miller’s reputation stands staggeringly high.

Two of the standout London theatre productions of this year are the scorching version of The Crucible that opened on 21 June at the Old Vic and the Young Vic’s brilliant rethinking of A View from the Bridge, which closed earlier that month. The Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park also recently staged a sharp All My Sons.

Great writing is often acclaimed as timeless but the greatness of Miller’s plays resides in being constantly topical. Drawing on the example of his Norwegian literary hero Henrik Ibsen, the American dramatist set out to write moral parables for his times. The Crucible used the witch trials in 17th-century Massachusetts as a metaphor for the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, while the protagonist of All My Sons is an industrialist who has knowingly shipped shoddy aircraft parts to the Second World War front. In A View from the Bridge, a Brooklyn longshoreman, from motives of racial and possibly sexual insecurity, shops illegal immigrants to the authorities. Each involving some form of tragic betrayal, the plays end in a variety of violent deaths: execution, murder, suicide.

Although historically located, their central situations – an atmosphere of hysterical accusation, the consequences of corporate malpractice and the suspicion of new arrivals in society – remain current in most countries. Nor has the governing worry of Death of a Salesman – capitalism’s indifference to human cost – become archaic.

So The Crucible, whenever and wherever it is produced, warns against the risks of groupthink and injudicious pursuit. When, at the Old Vic, John Proctor, whose wife has been charged with witchcraft, asks, “Is the accuser always holy now?” the words have obvious and painful relevance to the media, the Crown Prosecution Service and businesses in a culture where a pointed finger can become a weapon against which facts or innocence are considered irrelevant.

If he were around for the Old Vic staging, Miller would perhaps note that, while the jailing of three celebrity paedophiles (Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris) represents a necessary correction of earlier inaction in this area, a succession of others have suffered damage to their health, reputation and finances over public accusations of sexual offences that either never reached court (Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck, Freddie Starr) or were rejected by a jury (William Roache, Michael Le Vell, Nigel Evans).

In this context, it’s intriguing to consider the question of whether John Proctor is a sex offender. The Salem farmer, Miller specifies, is in his mid-thirties, while Abigail, the ex-mistress who calls Goodwife Proctor a witch, is 17, although the playwright admits in an afterword to having raised her age above that of the historical model. So, with typical moral perspicacity, Miller has understood that sexual error is often an aspect of a flawed personality – although there may be some in the audience who take the view that Proctor deserves to hang for seducing a teenager, regardless of whether he danced with the devil.

The recent revivals have shown that Miller’s texts can take – and gain from – innovative presentation. The Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge was sensibly permitted by the estate to ignore the stage directions and set the action in modern dress on a bare stage that climactically rained blood, reconnecting the play with its origins in Greek tragedy.

And, in her version of The Crucible, the South African director Yaël Farber locates the play in a place of mud, shadows and darkness that has more in common with settings of Macbeth than the designs Miller described in 1953. But the fear in Salem that “private vengeance is working through this testimony” echoes down the centuries and decades. Farber makes the play both timeless and topical. 

In a Straits line

Captions are a tricky calculation for art curators: thumping footnotes can irritate the knowing but novices may be thrown by the gnomic. The comments beside works by Ryan Gander in “The Human Factor”, a survey of figurative sculpture at the Hayward Gallery in London, adopt a curious attitude. We are told that his bronze bodies involve a “quotation” from Degas’s dancers but not that two of his titles – which include the words “Come up on different streets . . . ” and “When we made love you used to cry . . .” – draw from the Dire Straits song “Romeo and Juliet”.

The possibilities seem to be that the Hayward anticipates a clientele that needs nudging on Degas but has no trouble with a Mark Knopfler lyric; or that the curators are too highbrow to have picked up Gander’s pop culture nods. If the latter, it seems appropriate that Gander called one of his books In A Language You Don’t Know and even more fitting that he adapted that phrase from a pop lyric (by Low), as well.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred