The American Clock at the Old Vic
It wasn’t too long ago that the Old Vic nailed the Great Depression. 2017’s lyrical, desperate Girl From the North Country captured the era through a series of delicate character vignettes woven around Bob Dylan’s back catalogue. Though it’s missing Mr Zimmerman’s soundtrack, Rachel Chavkin’s revival of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock attempts a similar trick, only to fall far short of its thematic cousin.
Watching post-Wall Street Crash New York unravel, rather than centring on somewhere like Girl’s dilapidated Duluth – there is a mid-play Iowan sidebar, and a brief trip to the Mississippi – Miller’s 1980 patchwork is an odd one. Though there is a firm dramatic through line, tracing the struggles of the middle-class Baum family, it’s surrounded by so many other sketches and diversions that there’s no narrative momentum to speak of. Instead, the plot meanders from year to year, sometimes narrated by the mellifluous Clarke Peters, at others left to bob along on its own, following a nation as it loses its sense of self (and self-belief).
There’s an argument to be made that Chavkin has jazzed up when she should have cut down. It’s hard not to feel every minute of the production’s three-hour running time, the director’s flashy interventions – most memorably an exhausted dance marathon, and a GE President (a game Ewan Wardrop) who taps his way out of a job – only providing brief spikes of energy.
Having not previously read Miller’s text, it seems like it could do with some shaping, consisting of a collection of scenes of varying quality in need of a more cutthroat hand. This is especially true of the ending, when a natural stopping point – the dreadful approach of the mortgage man, his silhouette darkening a tired doorframe – is zoomed past in favour of a saccharine ode to mother and nation, and a somewhat patronising wrap-up speech not so subtly hinting at lessons unlearned.
The director further muddies Miller’s not very clear drama by having the three main Baums played by a trio of different actors. It’s potentially an attempt to suggest that their one story was the tale of many, but the lopsided amount of time dedicated to each set of actors means it’s a bit of an inconsistent device to track.
It’s not all bad. Peters is a fantastically engaging presence, even if he is asked to do more narrating than acting, while there are strong individual performances from Golda Rosheuvel, Francesca Mills and Taheen Modak. And the production tries as hard as it can to mine some gold from Miller’s dusty nuggets, music swinging and turntable turning. It’s just, as many classics as the playwright has under his belt, The American Clock ain’t one of them.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
The American Clock is at the Old Vic from 4th February until 30th March 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.