A cross to bear

Theatre - Arthur Miller's satirical farewell fails to come to life, writes Michael Portillo


The curtain fell on Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues at the Old Vic to muted applause, and a distinctly miserable cast stepped forward to take a perfunctory bow. After a few performances and savage critical reviews, it seemed the actors had lost confidence in what they were doing. Indeed, there had been hints of it during the evening. The dialogue between the two main characters, played by James Fox and Maximilian Schell, had lacked commitment. Frequently actors delivered their lines over each other, possibly in the wrong order.

Many of these problems stem from the play itself. The piece is full of bright ideas and funny lines, but the work as a whole is bizarre. Schell is Felix, a South American dictator, more caricature than character. He is a genial fellow and even when he interviews a subversive suspect and threatens to knock his teeth out, we never for a moment believe that he will be so nasty. He frequently fires his pistol in the air just to tease his bodyguards, and those heavies, in turn, are represented as crude cartoons.

The tyrant has two dilemmas, which intertwine quite amusingly. This serial womaniser is afflicted by a performance problem ("my dog won't hunt any more"). Up in the mountains, a charismatic figure is fomenting revolution among the villagers. Many believe him to be, and perhaps he actually is, the son of God. This Christ figure has a way of lighting up, and, reportedly, when he is lying with a woman and starts to glow, the effects on her can be remarkable. So the dictator oscillates between planning to execute the would-be Messiah and seeking a consultation for tips that might be helpful in the bedroom.

The play, written at the end of Miller's life, is riddled with dramatic problems. The opening piece is a soliloquy (well delivered by Neve Campbell) in which the dictator's niece, who has turned to drugs and revolution, reveals how her uncle has had all her friends shot. She has attempted suicide by throwing herself from a high window. She addresses us from her wheelchair, a brace around her neck, her legs twisted and one arm motionless and buckled. There's little hint here that the tyrant will turn out to be a figure of fun.

Towards the end of the first act, it seems we may witness a crucifixion. Felix is determined to stage a macabre execution to quell the revolution. A film director (Jane Adams), thinking she is there to make a commercial, has been lured into recording the grisly event. The tension mounts as we wait to see whether the son of God really will be nailed to the cross before our very eyes and (bathetically) whether the film director will destroy her career by walking off the job in disgust. It results in anti-climax. The plot gets worse when the film director, initially shocked at Felix's barbarism, becomes his lover. By now the "Messiah" is lighting up so often that you suspect a faulty light bulb somewhere in the wings. The piece ends in dramatic chaos and nonsense.

It was never likely to be a success, but it might have been better had the director, Robert Altman, imposed some order on the production. But because he encourages the actors to do their own thing, his interpretation lacks coherence and pace.

As a small example of directorial neglect, Campbell is stuck in her wheelchair on a tall rock at the top of a hideous set. She obviously felt too static during her opening monologue, so to introduce a little movement, her nurse, played by Caroline Madden, swivels her chair this way and that, which makes Campbell look like an electric fan.

James Fox never seems connected to the play at all. Maximilian Schell enjoys himself more than most of the actors, probably because he gets the funniest lines, in a performance that verges on pantomime. George Antoni as the captain commanding the bodyguards has wandered in from another production altogether, complete with dark glasses, droopy moustache and silly Mexican accent. Matthew Modine gives a hammy performance as an advertising executive who sees dollar signs if he gets exclusive rights to the crucifixion. It is not entirely Modine's fault: the part is one-dimensional, and every line predictable and silly.

The best performances come from Campbell and Adams and, above all, from Peter Mc-Donald, who plays Stanley, a dopehead disciple of the Messiah. Under Felix's interrogation he maintains a wonderfully spaced-out calm as he recounts the life and times of the man who may be God. As Stanley says of himself, his view of whether the man really is supernatural cannot be trusted, because he has believed in many things in his life, from drugs to maharajas.

It is an unsatisfactory evening. The best that can be said for it is that, in decades to come, those who saw it can boast of having seen a play by Miller directed by Altman and starring Schell. It represents the twilight of all three.

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