In the barren desert of the American West, many things can be forgotten. Marriages end in divorce, money is lost through gambling, even a spare atomic bomb can disappear into the air. It’s no wonder someone in The Misfits hails Nevada as the “Leave-it State”. Arthur Miller’s novella, written to coincide with his film version in 1961, was a good instrument for prying open American idealism after World War II. In Annie Ryan’s inventive reimagining for the Corn Exchange, it’s impressively honed towards present concerns.
When we first see Roslyn, a woman newly divorced, she’s walking into a bar still stung from the bitterness of court. “I just hate to fight with anybody,” she says, in a line originally written for the meticulous but soft-spoken Marilyn Monroe to deliver. But here Roslyn is played by Aoibhínn McGinnity, who’s more guarded and cautious, especially when two cowboys walk into the saloon. Guided by Ryan’s painstaking direction, this quickly becomes an exchange of war stories. When the jukebox plays, Roslyn and an airforce veteran (the superb Patrick Ryan) spin through their painful separations and the anxious effects of post-traumatic stress. There’s a hard-fought refocus of usual proceedings; if Roslyn drew attention in the film (which has traditionally been read as a portrayal of Monroe’s personal struggles), here you’re drawn to cowboy Gay, who, with Aidan Kelly’s brawn, impresses nearly everyone.
The play is a good reminder of how subtle Miller could be. In one fleeting moment, we hear a mother’s concerns about her son – a young rodeo-rider played by the fantastic Emmet Byrne – being warped by injury. That becomes even more disturbing when, to Roslyn’s horror, he becomes the necessary sacrifice for others to make a profit.
Annie Ryan’s reimagining updates Miller’s drama to make the misogynistic treatment of women in America more explicit. It’s delivered with the solemnity of an appeal to the American right. Along the way Roslyn’s friend Isabelle (a well-judged Úna Kavanagh) ceases to be seen, eventually becoming violently trapped. The seeds of toxic masculinity are already in the script. (“Just because a woman’s educated doesn’t mean much,” says Gay. “A woman’s a woman”).
By the end even Zia Bergin-Holly’s saloon set, which strips back to reveal a picturesque desert plain, seems to recognise Miller’s drama as flat as a fable. Roslyn resembles more a guide than a fully drawn character. Everyone is led by the same failed dream. Yet this lyrical production is worth seeing. It is particularly touching when the set reveals marks of the American flag, as two lost figures stare at the night sky. “See that star?” one of them asks. “That star is so far away”.
The Misfits is on at Smock Alley Theatre until 27th October. More info here.