There are five Arthur Miller plays scheduled to show in London this year. It is unclear what has sparked this proliferation of productions; the centenary of his birth was marked in 2015 with celebratory events across the globe. London’s contribution to the festivities was a West End staging of his arguably most well-known play, Death of a Salesman. This year’s Unofficial Arthur Miller Season, as it has been dubbed, features a Young Vic revival of the aforementioned and also some of his lesser known works. The American Clock fits into the latter camp.
It is fair to say, as the play begins, that by the end of 1929 nearly every American firmly believed that he was going to get richer and richer every year. If the date does not immediately ring a bell, it’s the year of the start of The Great Depression. The American Clock is Miller’s somewhat autobiographical take on take on the bust years that immediately followed the country’s great boom. Miller’s thought-provoking drama depicts a hard period in American history that forged the way for the social change that was so desperately needed that the time. As well as carrying inspiration from Miller’s life, the play takes some influence from Studs Terkel’s 1970s book, Hard Times: An Oral History of The Great Depression.
The play opens with a display of the glitzy opulence of the roaring twenties. The lights are bright, the music is jazzy and being millionaire is considered ordinary. Everybody from the shoeshine man on the street corner, to the big-shot corporate bosses has millions of dollars in the bank. This is also true for central characters the Baum Family, whose ordinary was chauffeur driven cars, new diamond bracelets, and a grand piano in the house. We see the devastating effects of the crash mainly through their lives. They are forced to move from a spacious house to a cramped apartment, the diamond bracelets are sent to the pawn shop, and finally, the piano is repossessed.
Around the main action is a series of snapshots of life elsewhere. Bankers who’ve lost their money and everybody else’s commit suicide. The farmers who have lost their farms revolt. There’s trouble and strife everywhere. This non-linear style isn’t easy to follow that’s partly down to Rachel Chavkin’s decision to multi-role the cast. The pace set by Chavkin doesn’t match the tempo of Miller’s writing – it’s too fast – so there isn’t enough time to register the subtle differences that signify change in the actors’ characters. It would definitely benefit from a larger ensemble; after 2 hours and 30 minutes, it is nearly impossible to tell who played whom. There is a glimmer of something interesting in the casting of the Baum family. There’s not one, but three of them; one white, one south asian and one black. This considers Miller’s fixation with the All American Family and attempts to extend it beyond the limitations of the euro-centric stereotype. It’s an intriguing concept, but poorly executed. For the intention of making such a bold statement about race – the All American Family has more than one face – the representations of race should be distinct and unquestionable. They’re not here, which dilutes the impact of the intended message.
There are, however, some impressive elements to this production. Chloe Lamford’s set with all its rich mahogany works in perfect harmony with of Rosie Elnile’s costume to transport you through the times of the piece. Meanwhile, Chavkin’s direction does include some stunning choices. She teams up with movement director Ann Yee to bring a hint of the visual epic prowess from her National Theatre production of Hadestown. There’s striking imagery in her staging and an excellent use of the revolving floor. All this works to heighten the feeling of unprecedented suspense created by Miller’s text. The feeling that, as the title alludes, there is an omnipresent clock menacingly ticking away in the background as time drags on while the suffering continues.
The American Clock is on at the Old Vic until 30th March. More info and tickets here.