All My Sons

How the latest influx of American classics is revitalising for the new theatre generation

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

As a theatre critic, you get used to seeing the same plays over and over again. It's not as bad as being a dance critic and being confronted with a diet of endless versions of Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, or an opera critic with La Boheme and The Magic Flute, but you can still be sure to see at least one or more productions of King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth every year. And these will sometimes be revelatory, like Ian McKellen or Andrew Scott recently tackling the first two, or a bit of a duffer, like Rory Kinnear and Christopher Ecclestone's simultaneous attempts at the last for the NT and RSC respectively.

Shakespeare isn't the only playwright to find his repertoire being regularly explored in British theatres. We're also currently experiencing a flood of revivals of plays by Arthur Miller: the Old Vic have followed a revival of the rarely-seen The American Clock with a new production of All My Sons, co-produced with Headlong, that is now previewing with a cast led by Sally Field and Bill Pullman (ahead of opening next 23rd April - coincidentally the night after an entirely different revival of the play opens on Broadway starring Annette Bening and Tracy Letts). While next up at the Young Vic on the same street Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell are co-directing Death of a Salesman from 1st May.

Also, currently at the fringe Yard Theatre in Hackney, Jay Miller is directing The Crucible (running to 11th May), which has been acclaimed by the Evening Standard's Fiona Mountford as "without doubt, the finest production of The Crucible I have ever seen".

She goes on: "Here is an unmistakable sign of a theatre stepping up several notches and moving into the big leagues. For the last few years the Yard has been a buzzy, boundary-pushing sort of place, but the stark clarity of this vision of the Arthur Miller classic is something else. "

The Crucible
The Crucible at the Yard Theatre
Photo credit: Helen Murray

The classics are always ripe for reinventions like this - and they can therefore help to literally put a theatre on the map. But that's not the only reason that they have an enduring appeal to both directors and audiences: they also have a remarkable ability to speak to the present moment through the prism of the past. As Time Out's Andrzej Lukowski wrote of this production: "Watching a play about a hitherto stable community collapsing into bitter recriminations because of an obstinate belief in the impossible - well, it's not hard for the mind to wander vaguely to Brexit."

There's also a welcome rush of Tennessee Williams plays, too. We've just had the Olivier winning Summer and Smoke (transferred from the Almeida to the Duke of York's), and next up at the Menier Chocolate Factory is Orpheus Descending, running from 9th May, with a fantastic cast that includes Hattie Morahan, Jemima Rooper and American actor Seth Numrich.

And following soon after, The Glass Menagerie is revived at the Arcola, from 23rd May, in what is billed as "radical new interpretation". It is the first UK production to set it in the African American community, and is coincidentally the same approach being adopted at the Young Vic in its production of Death of a Salesman. So both of these familiar plays will look and feel different to how they've been done before.

The same thing is finally true, too, for West Side Story, currently being revived at Manchester's Royal Exchange (where it runs to 25th May),  in which for the first time in a professional version in the UK its creative team have not been forced to replicate Jerome Robbins's original finger-snapping choreography (immortalised forever in the film version).  Instead, the show comes pulsing to life with a new vivacity of its own, where a different kind of naturalism is in play. And West Side Story will also be done again this year in a separate production, again with new choreography, at Leicester's Curve Theatre from 23rd November.

It's constantly rewarding to revisit these classics - and I'm delighted that creators are being freed from past restrictions to reinvent them for a new theatre generation.

Photo: Sally Field and Jenna Colman in All My Sons rehearsals, credit Johan Persson

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