By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Natalie Abrahami
Set design by Dick Bird
Young Vic Theatre, London
Friday 24th April 2015, 7.30 pm
David Annen as Narrator / Muriel’s father / Irish barman
Georgia Bourke as Muriel, Richard’s girlfriend
Janie Dee as Essie Miller, Richard’s mother
George Mackay as Richard Miller, age 16
Martin Marquez as Nat Miller, Richard’s father, a newspaper owner
Eleanor McLoughlin as Norah, the Irish maid
Yasmin Paige as Belle, the girl in the bar
Lucas Pinto or Rory Stroud as Tommy, Richard’s younger brother, age 10
Dominic Rowan as Sid, the bachelor uncle
Susannah Wise as Lily, the maiden aunt
Ashley Zhangazha as Arthur Miller, Richard’s older brother
Ah! Wilderness! It can’t be coincidental, all these American plays starting with A. American Buffalo, A View from The Bridge, All My Sons, All New People. They must be pushing themselves into a good place in alphabetical listings.
After railing against classic American drama in my American Buffalo review yesterday, I went to the Young Vic to see one of the classics of all classics, Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! There’s personal history here. American Drama was a third year option in American Studies at university. Having done Drama subsidiary, I was written in for it. A summer spent reading Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder and Arthur Miller in preparation, and I opted for American Slavery instead. And I do really like Arthur Miller. These last two years see the classic American stuff almost dominating British theatre. I’m not sure why, but they’ve generally been tremendous productions. After the Young Vic’s A View From The Bridge last year, we felt their Ah, Wilderness! would be a must see. The Young Vic is always a fabulous space, and a joy to be in after an evening in an old West End theatre. We had great seats, and a perfect view.
The set: Essie (Mom) foreground
Reviews are mainly three stars (Sunday Times two stars) and compete for sand references, as sand covers the stage. Forget shifting whispering sands, given the presence of the 1906 narrator I’ll go for Remember, Walking In The Sand. The play was written in 1933, and set in 1906 in a New England beach house. The time of writing is just after the repeal of prohibition and the action is set before prohibition, so a major theme is booze, drunkards, meeting booze for the first time. It was probably quite edgy at the time, but edgy in an Aykbourne sort of edgy, that is, only a little bit edgy.
It all takes place on the 4th and 5th of July. Independence Day. The theme is rebellious youth, or would-be independent youth, in Richard, the son of the Miller family. His brother is, wait for it, called Arthur Miller. As the narrator figure in a white suit has voice over stage directions, I guess he’s Eugene O’Neill. That’s confusing. Good job there’s no one called Williams or Albee.
Richard reads Oscar Wilde, Swinburne, Omar Khayam and Carlyle. That is, only a little bit rebellious. Some of the funniest lines refer to his reading matter … O’Neill called it a comedy, even a romantic comedy, but then again O’Neill is known for tragedy, and his idea of comedy was only a little bit comic.
Richard with Carlyle’s French Revolution: Heady stuff
The rebellious Richard is in trouble, though only a little bit of trouble, for writing love notes to Muriel, daughter of a neighbour. These were considered over-salacious. His brother Arthur takes him to a dubious bar, the Pleasant Beach House, with rooms for prostitution. This was a little bit edgy for 1933, though one would have thought incredibly edgy for its 1906 setting. So Richard canoodles with a tart, but only a little bit. He doesn’t go upstairs, and indeed gets thrown out by the Irish barman. Eugene O’Neill, in spite of his Irish name, found comic Irish a little bit hilarious, as in the family maid who is comic Irish. It all ends nicely, with Muriel and Richard getting together. The maiden aunt, Lily, is getting off with the drunk and cheerful bachelor uncle Sid (we have to presume their aunt-dom and uncle-hood is on different sides of the family.) Mom and Pop talk about the joys of Spring and also the Beauties of Autumn, and even of Winter. One assumes they’re anticipating having a bit of these joys, but only a little bit.
The play is slight, and as I thought all those years ago, a little bit dull. The production has gone to town to pull it into the 21st century. Costumes are 2015. There is no beach house, but a series of open doors at the back, and the front is a sandy slope. I loved the set. It was inspired by a beach and decayed beach house in Namibia, which should render it irrelevant, but I thought the sand worked. A superb device is finding bits of props and costume hidden in the sand. It’s beautifully lit throughout. It’s run without an interval, cut to about 1 hour 45 minutes, and in the last “scene” the taps open up and form a pond in the sand, which gets well used. These are additions to the base play.
L to R: Nat (Dad), Aunt Lily, Uncle Sid, Essie (Mom), Tommy. Richard
Performances are, as expected, first rate. George Mackay as Richard is truly outstanding, a terrific interpretation and a modern one. It’s colour blind, as Ashley Zhangazha (the prologue in Jude Law’s Henry V in the Grandage Season) is such a good Art, or “Arthur Miller” that my normal moans about the confusion of colour blindness within a family setting were swept away. He plays a bit of piano and sings, but only a bit. A piano in a sandpit? Shades of Brian Wilson. Janie Dee is Essie, the Mom, and Martin Marquez is Nat, the newspaper-owning dad. One surprise for me, was that when they have the 4th of July dinner, Nat and brother-in-law Sid, are pissed paralytic. Sid (Dominic Rowan) does a speech about eating the lobster and being pregnant with a boy … and I realize Peter Barnes was partly quoting it in “The Ruling Class” (reviewed elsewhere near). Sid ends up prancing on the table (a table which was also found under the sand).
Arthur Miller at the piano. Aunt Lily watching
So … first rate cast, production, direction, lighting, theatre, even Bob Dylan play-in and play out music BUT I only enjoyed it a little bit. It comes down to the play which I found so dull when I read it all those years ago, and even all the talent and resources and invention put on it does not rescue the basic text. The three star reviews are fair on how the Young Vic did it, but overall, I’d knock one off because the play is so slight. Not worth reviving.