The space at Theatro Technis is a bit too big really for Danger:Memory! – somewhere like the Finborough, or the King’s Head would have been a better fit all around. But director Nathan Osgood gets the most he can out of his performers, and on the whole the production does more for these minor works than their substance merits.
Like the true professional that he was, Arthur Miller carried on writing pretty much to the end of his career, but from the 1970s onwards for the most part the law of diminishing returns applied to the results. That does not mean that there are not intriguing lessons to be learned from these late works, but anyone coming expecting work of the dramatic intensity and raw impact of his early career is bound to be disappointed. We have benefited in London from seeing for the first time the quality of some of his very early writing, notably No Villain, seen for the very first time this year; but this double-bill from 1986 is unfortunately not a parallel bookend of similar interest.
Danger: Memory! comprises two short plays: ‘I can’t remember anything’ and ‘Clara’. Both were written at about the same time as Miller’s autobiography Timebends, and share that work’s preoccupation with the seductive and deceptive aspects of memory, especially from the perspective of the elderly looking backwards over their shoulders at the materials of a long and varied life.
However, unlike Timebends, which had the superabundant material of Miller’s political and dramatic and personal life to work and play with, these two short plays offer fairly thin gruel in terms of both plot and character.
The first is a two-hander between Leo (Julian Bird) and Leonora (Deborah Javor), old friends and near-neighbours, who have got into the habit of dining together. They are linked in memory by their shared fondness for her dead husband, who was Leo’s best friend.
Leonora has sunk into effective alcoholism, and claims not to remember anything. It is not clear whether this is early onset dementia or simply the blurring effects of alcohol. Leo is more physically decrepit, but much sharper mentally, still trying to do small-scale work on civil engineering projects, his former career. They are testy around one another but within a gentle penumbra of trust and affection, and a concern to look out for one another.
This jousting and joshing is well achieved by Miller, and any apprentice dramatist who wants an object lesson in how to write naturalistic dialogue where a lot is hinted but little directly stated could study this play to advantage.
As a warm-up play this just about passes muster, but nothing much happens, or indeed can happen, given the scenario: the points made about memory and its relationship to deliberate forgetting and selective retrospective editing of a life are perfunctory and obvious. The most effective moment is when music comes to the rescue and provides a Latin dance number which takes the two players back to their palmy days of elegant dinner parties and youthful exuberance.
The two actors are skilled performers who inhabited their roles plausibly, but the pace was half a beat too slow, even allowing for the fact that they were playing elderly characters. Doubtless the very sparse matinee audience did not help in this regard, but even so there should be more variety of pace in the exchanges, which at times seemed quite mannered in execution.
Clara is the more ambitious, but ultimately more disappointing, play of the two. There are deliberate echoes of the perennial themes and conflicts of the great plays: inter-generational family strife, this time between father and daughter; the struggle of the individual against corporate greed and organised crime; the morally ambiguous nature of the forces of law and order; and the revelation of a past incident that has sent echoes down the decades. The problem is that the vehicle for all these aspects is wholly unconvincing as a dramatic framework.
Albert Kroll (Julian Bird) is in shock after the brutal murder of his daughter. He is interrogated quite roughly by Detective Fine (Anthony Taylor) on what he remembers and who may be responsible. Gradually we learn that Albert’s daughter has courted danger by devoting her life to prisoner rehabilitation, and that her partner, a former prisoner, is a prime suspect for the crime.
This revelation leads to a fierce debate between Albert and Fine over the boundaries of moral responsibility. Should Albert have intervened to warn Clara? Have his own liberal, socially inclusive views led her into a sense of false security? And how moral a figure is he anyway, given his own proximity to organised crime as chair of a local zoning board…?
These are potentially very searching issues. We see Miller here beginning to grapple with the modern moral minefield of ‘political correctness’ and its potential for inhibiting and blocking a response to criminal behaviour. But while tricky questions are raised, the answers are not dramatically convincing.
Despite passionate commitment and excellent technical work by both actors the characters never really acquire three-dimensional status, and the flashbacks between Albert and his daughter (a silent role played by Kristy Quade) seem very artificial. The experience is rather like watching the later plays of Bernard Shaw, where the characters have shrivelled to become the mouthpieces of viewpoints, chess pieces moved around in an intellectual debate, rather than living and breathing human beings.
No blame attaches here to the actors who do the best they can with this material. Julian Bird in particular reveals the conflicted elements in Albert’s past with meticulous care. There is one lovely scene at the end which reminds one of Miller at his very best, and this scene genuinely touches the heart.
As Detective Fine puts on a record of a sumptuous arrangement of ‘Shenandoah’, Albert recalls a defining episode in his life when he took a stand against racist violence that defined his life from there onwards, and represents the action of which he is most proud despite all the later compromises of his adult life. Bird delivers this speech with a studied eloquence and calculated weight that does full justice to the carefully crafted cadences of the prose.
It is one of those moments where the personal and the abstract fuse, where the character bursts in lambent flame at the same time as a big point about America at its best and worst is being made. We catch a sudden passing glimpse and reminder of why Miller was the quintessential dramatist of the twentieth-century American soul.
Designer David Meunier-Palmer does an economical job with the set – just a scatter of furniture and a backdrop of intersecting wires to suggest a wall and windows. While the choice of music and arrangements is excellent, the sound design is intrusive and overdone at points; for example a ticking clock in the first play is too obvious a device.
The space at Theatro Technis is a bit too big really for this play – somewhere like the Finborough, or the King’s Head would have been a better fit all around. But director Nathan Osgood gets the most he can out of his performers, and on the whole the production does more for these minor works than their substance merits.