The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Spring 2006
This is a total train wreck of a show, and the only attraction can be the macabre fascination of watching a stage full of professionals crash and burn.
Who? Playwright Arthur Miller, director Robert Altman, stars Maximilian Schell, James Fox, Matthew Modine and Neve Campbell, along with everyone down to the assistant stage manager, few of whom, I suspect,will be listing this disaster in their future CVs.
Where to begin? Miller's play, his next-to-last, is a mess. Set in an unnamed South American country, it centres on the military dictator (Schell), who is being plagued by a rebel leader who may or may not be the Son of God.
The General decides to have the rebel crucified (a fairly common way of dealing with problems in this country, we are told}, and an American network has paid millions and millions for the TV rights.
You may have spotted part of the problem already. What is going on here – a political play, an exploration of religion, a satire on American commercial TV? The answer is all and none, since all are raised and none is stuck with long enough to have anything beyond the obvious (faith good, American TV bad) to say.
Meanwhile, the writing is simply bad. Miller was never the most felicitous of stylists, but at best his earnestness created a rough poetry. Here, the dialogue is uniformly clunky and the attempts at humour leaden, at satire heavy-handed, at poetry embarrassing.
Much of the time he can't even manage a conversation between two people in a room that has any sense of the realistic about it.
And it's just sloppy. One tiny example: at one point James Fox's character, more-or-less the resident philosopher, seriously puts forth the theory that the son-of-God guy - who all of them have seen and at least one has slept with - may be a mass hallucination.
His justification - try to follow this - is that he's never seen any menorahs in ancient Egyptian art, and therefore Moses and the Exodus may be a myth.
Aside from the dubious logical connection, Miller seems to have forgotten that the menorah (the Chanukah candelabra) entered Jewish culture to celebrate an event more than a thousand years after the Exodus.
(I'm not nitpicking. An obvious slip-up like that suggests that Miller was not operating at full power when he wrote and re-wrote this play. And the fact that I had time to notice it is evidence that the play wasn't holding my attention.)
Or maybe that's meant to be a joke, in which case it falls as flat as the running gags about El Presidente's sexual impotence and the other attempts at humour.
Legendary film director Robert Altman doesn't seem to have contributed much. Without exception, the actors all stand or move around the stage illogically or uncertainly, as if not sure where they're supposed to be.
Or maybe they just ignored him - there's an article in the programme describing a rehearsal, in which he instructs one actress not to make a certain move in one scene. In performance she does it.
He certainly hasn't led the actors to any viable characterisations. The leads can be divided neatly between those who play one-dimensional caricatures - Schell's dictator and Matthew Modine's TV executive – and those who can give their roles no personality at all - Fox's commentator and Neve Campbell's Magdalen figure.
Must I go on? Neve Campbell's opening monologue, about a failed suicide, is recited with all the animation of a schoolgirl reading a book report in front of the classroom.
Maximiliam Schell constantly fumbles with his lines and with his props - getting a telephone from the cradle to his ear defeats him, and his uninterrupted string of scrambled lines and frantic adlibs to cover memory losses throws everyone else's timing off.
James Fox (who admittedly came into rehearsals late to replace the ailing - or prescient? - John Wood) seems totally lost onstage.
The overall effect is of a village amateur society at the first rehearsal without scripts in hand, and when it is not bizarrely fascinating, it is just embarrassing to watch.
Does anyone survive with dignity? Two secondary actors manage to create vaguely believable characters and keep their heads when all about them are covered with flop sweat, even though neither of their characters make much sense.
Jane Adams is attractive as the TV director who balks at the idea of broadcasting a crucifixion but is willing to sleep with the General (and cure his impotence), even though he's old enough to be her grandfather.
And Peter McDonald has some fun with a stoned follower of the new Messiah, even though the confused script makes him go from hippie-dippie clown to the play's voice of reason in a single scene.
My companion asked me on the way out how this could have happened. The answer is that, in order to survive the pre-production and rehearsal process of any show, everyone involved must will themselves into a state of denial and convince themselves that they're involved in a masterpiece.
Sometimes they're wrong.
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