The American Clock

Arthur Miller
Old Vic Theatre
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Arthur Miller is flavour of the month, The American Clock opening only two days after The Price, with All My Sons in the Old Vic pipeline.

However, this production is about far more than a slightly problematic 1980 work in which arguably the greatest playwright of the middle years of the last century reflects on the Depression half a century after the event.

Director Rachel Chavkin is determined to bring her own aesthetic to an evening that stretches to three hours, thanks to the introduction of a significant element of song, dance and a jazzy Justin Ellington soundtrack.

This proves to be a double-edged sword, since her efforts distract viewers from a play that can be a little diffuse but, ironically, drags it out and also brings its own element of confusion.

The piece itself inevitably draws on Miller’s own family history, creating scenes that have much in common with the reminiscences in the enthusiastically received revival of The Price just across the river at Wyndham’s, but also brings in material drawn from Hard Times written by the legendary oral chronicler of American lives, Studs Terkel.

What becomes obvious in the opening scene of a presentation that takes place in a completely reconfigured almost in-the-round auditorium (a large number of audience members placed behind a small, central stage) is that while the scale of greed-engendered financial disasters might be different, economic history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.

Here, Clarke Peters playing Robertson acts as a narrator talking us through the Crash of 1929, which led directly into the Depression. Robertson, who could easily sound smug having sold out at the right moment, is regretful instead, as he introduces tales of multimillionaires who lose everything.

The strength of The American Clock is the manner in which it shows how a financial collapse will inevitably spread its pain far and wide. While hearing the story of a financier who jumped out of a window is shocking, witnessing the relatively affluent being reduced to penury has a far greater effect. This is somewhat dissipated by a directorial decision to use three teams of actors to portray the same characters, which is likely to throw large sections of the audience off the scent for quite some time.

Even the difficulties faced by the American middle classes in the cities seem as nothing when we hear of farmers obliged to sell up for next to nothing, subsequently finding themselves literally starving in the Dust Bowl before migrating towards the cities where their hopes are equally effectively dashed.

Rachael Chavkin has very deliberately presented this material in the form suggested by the play’s subtitle “A Vaudeville”, requiring her ensemble to utilise wide skillsets. This means that performers such as Golda Rosheuvel can reveal golden voices, Ewan Wardrop tap dance with vigour as his influential character, the President of General Electric, revolts against the system and Francesca Mills brings her unique brand of triple-threat enthusiasm to bear in a number of roles.

While the resulting evening is enjoyable in great part and some important messages about the past and the present are disseminated along the way, the style of presentation can get in the way of storytelling, meaning that audiences have to work harder than strictly necessary to take those messages on board.

Philip Fisher