In these perilous economic times, the idea that we’re “all in this together” preached by multimillionaires more often than not seems like a complete falsehood. In Depression-era America, there was no social security and it was all-too-easy to fall from affluence to the breadline and beneath. Arthur Miller’s bitterly pessimistic depiction of this bleak era (originally staged in 1980 and substantially re-worked several times) based on Studs Terkel’s oral history tome published in 1970 doesn’t offer any sign of recovery, suggesting that what goes around comes around, which is only to be expected in a world where everyone is obsessed with money.
Upon entering the auditorium, the audience is greeted by the sight of a group of well-heeled, be-suited banker types at a private view in a trendy art gallery (superbly designed by Philip Lindley) sipping champagne and surrounded by photographs from the Depression “suggested by eyewitness accounts in Studs Terkel’s book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression” and sponsored by American Allied Bank. In Phil Wilmott’s rather meta staging, the action takes place against this exhibition where the Depression, a blip in American history brushed over by World War II, has become a corporate product.
The American panorama evoked by the breadth of characters and narrative style isn’t dissimilar from the musical Ragtime. Narrated by the all-knowing banker Arthur A. Robertson (Patrick Poletti) who explains that “The stock market is a state of mind”, the hedonistic optimism of the Roaring Twenties was a ticking time bomb. The central characters, the Baum family, removed from their comfortable home to a “Brooklyn cemetery” are the archetypal victims. Moe Baum loses his garment business and is reduced to selling on commission and his wife, Rose, has to sell her jewellery and eventually her beloved piano. For die-hard capitalist Grandpa, there’s no such thing as society, and teenage son Lee’s Ivy League plans are scuppered by having to choose a college with free or cheap fees.
There are many insightful moments and it’s certainly a learning experience, but Miller stuffs too much information in and the tone is a tad dry and preachy, leaving one wishing that Miller had focused on the Baum family rather than creating an inconsistent epic, particularly when anger tips into hysteria. There are too many talking heads who only appear once to push Miller’s agenda, such as the President of General Electric, who resigns in order to become a consultant to independent businesses, the kind that his corporation swallowed up.
Most of the cast play multiple roles, not all of which are effectively differentiated between. James Horne in particular plays the same accented curmudgeon in all his parts. Issy van Randwyck is a resilient matriarch; Michael Benz sensitively charts aspiring journalist Lee’s (representing Terkel himself?) growth into maturity and developing social conscience, and David Ellis brings an endearing gawkiness to his cousin Sidney, offered one of the strangest survival methods in agreeing to an arranged marriage to his family’s landlady’s daughter.
The blind belief in the stock market is a thing of the past, but clinging onto the hope that things will get better continues to haunt all generations. Ending with a cacophony of shouting into mobile phones, the individual seems as isolated as ever.