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The Archbishop's Ceiling

Arthur Miller
Southwark Playhouse
(2004)

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New artistic director, Gareth Machin has made an interesting and surprisingly topical choice for his first play at Southwark Playhouse. Whether or not he knew that Clare Short would claim that Britain had spied on the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan when he selected The Archbishop's Ceiling, he has found himself with a production with strong contemporary relevance.

This is one of Arthur Miller's less performed plays, possibly because it takes on different subject-matter from his greatest hits. It is about American writer who travels to an unnamed European city, probably Prague, during the Cold War and in many ways is more reminiscent of the work of David Edgar than Miller. There, he encounters a good cross-section of Communist society.

The main players are a comfortable older writer who has given up on principles in exchange for a former Archbishop's palace and a life of luxury, a dissident writer possibly modelled on Vaclav Havel or Milan Kundera, and a pretty lady with startling intuition who has been lover to all three writers. Less successfully, the play introduces a blonde Danish bimbo seemingly just for show.

Within this structure, Miller is able to view writing and politics on both sides of the Iron Curtain and the conclusions that he reaches are sometimes unexpected.

Ian Porter plays the American visitor, Adrian, as a bumbling, remarkably stupid man, which doesn't seem entirely appropriate for a world-renowned novelist.

Julia St John as Maya and especially Valentine Pelka as the dissident Sigmund do far better in cleverly conveying the difficulties of life under a repressive regime. Whether the apartment in which they meet is bugged or not is ultimately irrelevant because the belief that it might be is enough to alter the way in which people live.

The play's main dramatic tension rests on whether Sigmund wishes to continue to live and write in a country that does not want him and where he will have to publish through the underground, samizdat presses. The underlying issue is whether a writer in some subconscious way needs the stimulus of oppression and hardship in order to be able to produce his best work.

To the very last moment of the play, this decision hangs over him, as it did over so many writers two or three decades ago. Indeed, Miller himself may well have identified with Sigmund as he was writing the play, following his own experiences with Senator McCarthy in the 1950s.

The production is graced by superb set design from Amy Mabire, with the titular ceiling a genuine work of art in the style of Chagall.

This may not be Arthur Miller's best play and as a result of world trends can seem dated but its neglect is undeserved. This is a very welcome revival and asks interesting questions, some of which suddenly seem terrifyingly important once again.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher