A faintly surreal docu-drama: The American Clock at the Old Vic

Plus: Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar.

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A financial crash. Unpaid government employees. Disillusionment with “the system”. Populism, political extremism, the threat of war. It is easy to see why the Old Vic would have wanted to stage a revival of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock, a chronicle of the Great Depression and its aftermath, at this particular moment. The action unfolds like a faintly surreal docu-drama, all baggy scenes and oblique vignettes. There’s the man who foresees the crash (an uncanny precursor to The Big Short). There’s a near-lynching as a dustbowl farmer’s equipment is sold off at obscenely low prices. And there’s a dreamlike dance-a-thon where exhausted competitors cling on to each other like people slowly drowning.

Unfortunately, the central thread – the post-crash fate of the Baum family – is not strong enough to anchor these digressions. The director Rachel Chavkin has cast three sets of actors to play the Baums: first white and Jewish, then south Asian, then black. You can see the aim – expanding our idea of the archetypal American family – but it makes a fragmented narrative even harder to follow and prevents us building a rapport with the characters. (The Young Vic’s approach later this year – casting the Loman family in Death of a Salesman exclusively with black actors – seems more likely to succeed.) It doesn’t help that the character list already requires extensive doubling.

Some of the fault lies with Miller – or, rather, his literary estate. No rewrites of his work are allowed, so this play from 1980 has been jolted back to life like the T-rex in Jurassic Park, rather than gently reshaped into a fresh form for a fresh audience. While the evening feels too long, there are pleasures along the way. Clarke Peters – known to me as Lester Freamon from The Wire – gives an outstanding performance as the quasi-narrator, Robertson (he’s also the Baum patriarch mark three). Francesca Mills shines in a range of roles, from West Side princess to communist comic artist.

Chavkin directed the robust, enjoyable Hadestown at the National Theatre last year, and once again uses a live band to good effect. However, the staging borders on the nauseating at times, with the Old Vic’s revolve whirring like a merry-go-round. The subtler effects – water coursing down a blackboard bearing market prices, a huge arc lamp standing in for an oncoming train – are more affecting. As are the subtler moments, such as when Moe Baum asks his son for a quarter to get downtown. Shame oozes out of every pore at the role reversal. We see how money is more than subsistence; it’s a way of keeping score.

Subtlety is not a hallmark of the Donmar’s adaptation of the 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio. It ends (spoiler) with a man cutting off his tongue with a pair of secateurs. The eccentric English sound engineer, called Gilderoy, has been driven mad by his attempts to find the perfect noise with which to over-dub a torture scene.

Gilderoy is played perfectly by Tom Brooke in a nervous, nerdish performance. He has been hired to oversee the dialogue and effects on the latest slasher-flick by an Italian director called Santini. Between receiving tapes from his mother – who is slowly going blind back in England – he must find the perfect noise to encapsulate the off-screen “bacio indelebile” (indelible kiss) that finishes off the film’s victim. Except all the screaming is tearing apart his leading lady’s voice. And what if Santini isn’t faking the erotic violence captured on screen?

The script cleverly moves from farce – the studio technicians, both called Massimo, stomp around in high heels and massacre watermelons – before piling up the sinister elements one by one. The tone is reminiscent of Roald Dahl on a nastier day and, by the end, Gilderoy’s breakdown feels entirely explicable. The production is a taut 100 minutes, building to a satisfying (if slightly superficial) pitch of terror. 

“The American Clock” and “Berberian Sound Studio” both run until 30 March

The American Clock
Arthur Miller
The Old Vic, London SE1

Berberian Sound Studio
Joel Horwood
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State