The revival of Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons, currently on Broadway, has been dividing critics. Some praised director Simon McBurney‘s approach, which eschews the strict naturalism so beloved on the Great White Way in favor of a certain stylization, while others disliked the production for pretty much the same reason (though they tended to word their objections along the lines of, “I can’t feel for the characters”).
I fall squarely in the first camp—if you happen to be in the New York area, this is one of the finest nights at the theater you can find—and one of the reasons is that in addition to its aesthetics (this is a starkly designed but very elegant show), the production offers a point of view on the material. In other words, McBurney is no mere illustrator: He’s thought about the play and gives us his interpretation of it; it’s then up to us, the audience, to argue about whether or not we buy his reading. Sure, interpreting material is what directors are meant to do, but watching All My Sons, I was reminded of how rarely it actually is the case.McBurney, for instance, is very smart about when happens onstage when someone’s talking. Mediocre directors focus on the person(s) speaking at the detriment of those around them, but also of what happens before and after that particular scene; this leads the audience to do the same thing: all eyes on those delivering the lines! Good directors, however, can also work on other characters’ “reaction shots,” to borrow from film vocabulary, and on spatial relationships. What you hear is colored by what you see.
For instance in All My Sons, there’s a free-standing door in the back of the stage, so you clearly see some characters approach as they prepare to make their entrance, and you see them hover right behind the door as they exit. This is a simple but very efficient device because you wonder if those characters evesdropped on a conversation they’re not meant to hear. Miller doesn’t specify whether or not that’s the case, but McBurney makes a decision that then informs the way the characters react to each other. Okay, this is pretty 101 stuff, but there’s way too many times when I wonder if many New York directors shouldn’t be sent back to theater school to learn the basics.
When it comes to straight plays, Broadway and most of Off Broadway are squarely naturalistic. (Yes, this is one of my obsessions—I broached the issue of naturalism as it pertains to political theater in a previous post—because to me it’s among the huge rifts in the way stage experiences are presented.) New York needs to be more open to director-driven stagings, not only of experimental texts but also of classics. My two favorite King Lears are a relatively traditional staging by Ingmar Bergman and a demolition-derby production by Belgian director Jan Lauwers (which prompted over half of the BAM audience to flee the night I saw it). Both offered strong takes on the material, which is the least we must demand of directors. For if they have no clear idea about the text they’re presenting to us, why should we care?