Arthur Miller’s All My Sons was his second play, his first having bombed, and was written in 1947, just two years after the end of World War Two. The plot and the questions it poses about the economic circumstances of the individual in a consumer society, the morality of the individual in the community, and grief and family relationships, are all very relevant today. All of the performances in the current production at The Old Vic, London are energetic, intense and emotional, and set against a backdrop of just one stage set up of a traditional American family home, which the audience never actually see inside.
The fact that we never allowed into the house mirrors the family members’ behaviour. Everyone is wearing a mask and keeping a secret, some more deadly than others. The stand out performances for me were undoubtedly Sally Field (Kate Keller) and Bill Pullman (Joe Keller). Experienced actors have a consummate confidence on stage. They are entirely at home and this shows in their body language, delivery and movements, not only when they are speaking but when they remain silent (but are still acting, of course). Sally’s portrayal of a grief stricken mother is heart rendering but never slushy, and her steely determination to avoid the truth is both frightening and totally understandable.
All My Sons is directed by Jeremy Herrin and set in post war America. Kate and Joe Keller have lived the American Dream whereby, despite hard times, they raised two grown up sons and built up a thriving business. Their eldest son, Larry, was a pilot reported missing during the recent war, something Kate cannot accept, believing he will return any day now. This was the case in the chaotic aftermath of the war and some men did return, so it’s not out of the bounds of possibility. Nonetheless, Kate struggles to keep the status quo and will not countenance mention of her son’s actual death. Human beings do not deal well with change and the first stage of grief is denial. In Kate’s case, denial is based upon her family’s, and the community’s, collusion. It is her second son, Chris (Colin Morgan), who finally challenges this state of affairs and brings the house of cards tumbling down.
During the war Joe Keller was involved in a cover-up in which faulty aircraft parts made at his factory resulted in numerous pilot deaths. At the trial Joe lied about his part in the incident, putting the blame squarely on his friend, neighbour and employee, Steve Deever, who has since been serving a prison sentence. His daughter Anne has not spoken to her father since his sentence began.
Former girl-next-door, Anne Deever, was engaged to the Keller’s eldest son and, back to the present day, is now planning to marry the younger Keller. It is Chris’ decision, effectively to move on from his brother’s death, that acts as a catalyst to bring the past crashing back into the present.
Marriage is at the centre of All My Sons. Joe and Kate now live next door to Dr Jim Bayliss (Sule Rimi) who resents domesticity and General Practice and would rather be conducting medical research and making a name for himself, which his wife Sue Bayliss (Kayla Meikle) resents. Living on the other side of the Keller’s are Frank Lubey (Gunnar Cauthery). Frank is a geeky sort of chap and married to the beautiful Lydia (Bessie Carter), who it appears is secretly in love with George Deever. More secrets. I found the neighbours popping in and out of scenes a distraction but on reflection I realise this was Miller’s way of showing that life is a series of compromises. Human beings negotiate their way through life, doing the best they can with the circumstances given, and make mistakes. And we have to fnd a way to live with those errors of judgement. It’s not the mistakes in life that define us but the way we handle them. Joe made two decisions with catastrophic results. After allowing the faulty plane parts to be passed, he went one step further and lied, allowing another (and a friend at that) to take the blame. Bill Pullman gives a wonderfully convincing argument as Joe in his defence. Had he scrapped the damaged engine parts, the military contract would have been cancelled. How would he support his family with his business in ruins in a post war society?
The truth comes out as Anne’s brother, George Deever (Oliver Johnstone), arrives to tell her he has visited their father and is convinced he is telling the truth about Joe’s deception. It is, however, Chris who finally challenges his father face to face and decides to turn his father in to the police. How can Joe justify the reasons for his actions when his own son, it turns out, actually committed suicide in his plane after hearing about the faulty parts and subsequent 21 pilots’ deaths? Finally, Joe, already aware that he had made errors of judgement, now accepts his culpability and says, ‘I guess they were all my sons’. Joe enters the house to collect his things – where the audience is unable to follow – and takes the ultimate step to attone for his mistakes.
Wonderful performances all round. Currently running at The Old Vic until 8 June, I finally made it to the play, a live performance filmed and shown at Chichester New Park Cinema. This is the second play I’ve attended in this way and I must say I’m hooked. The National Theatre Live, a groundbreaking project which aims to broadcast world-class theatre to cinemas UK-wide and internationally, celebrates 10 years this year. In 2018 it had 19,940 screenings around the world.