Principles and politics versus family responsibilities. Divided loyalties are a moral dilemma that playwright Arthur Miller struggled with his entire life.
No Villain, his debut play, was not only deeply autobiographical but it also established themes that would run through his future work.
Time and again he returned to his roots for material – Communism, workers rights, relationship issues between fathers and sons, traditional values struggling against idealism and change.
As a struggling university student Arthur Miller faced abject poverty. His solution was to write himself off the breadline by entering a college playwrighting competition and winning the $250 first prize.
No Villain, written in 1936, may have saved his bacon but it was never produced. Instead it gathered mothballs until last year, when it was discovered and performed to critical acclaim at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre.
It has now been transferred to the West End, opening last night at the Trafalgar Studios, and its run has already been extended such is the interest in this rough-around-the-edges drama.
There’s a lot to recommend it, not least the compelling central performances of David Bromley as factory boss Abe Simon and George Turvey as his son Ben.
But, coming in at under 90 minutes, it’s clear that Miller had a lot more work to do to flesh out the story and its characters. They’re all here, but not in any detail. We have to wait until All My Sons and Death of a Salesman to see the writer at his best.
Miller wrote himself into No Villain, playing the role of dissident young student Arnie who is heading home to New York for the summer.
His father, Abe, a Jewish immigrant, has spent the last 20 years building up a business manufacturing women’s coats.
But now his clothing empire is under threat after workers stage a strike that blocks deliveries leaving the factory and turns violent against scabs trying to make it through.
His younger son, Ben, who gave up his own ambitions to obey his dad’s call to join the family business, is struggling.
As a Communist (before America came to hate Communism) he firmly believes in workers’ rights and their fight for a fair wage.
But as his father’s son he tries to do everything he can to keep the factory solvent – even breaking the picket.
The arrival of Arnie is a catalyst that will make or break the family. He is also a committed Communist and refuses to help his father because of his principles.
The pressure-cooker atmosphere in the over-crowded Simon household reaches boiling point as the sons struggle with their own convictions against their parents’ traditional values, while the father fights for survival.
Caught in the crossfire is Esther (Nesba Crenshaw), Abe’s frequently hysterical, overbearing wife, who spends most of the play screaming and stressing over her family and its future.
Powerless and ignorant, too frightened even to pick up a ringing telephone, she fears for her boys, worries about her ageing father and bickers with her husband.
She wants her sons to support their dad and a business that will one day be passed on to them – but they want nothing to do with it.
The volume is turned to high for almost the entire play with everyone raging at each other.
Alex Forsyth as Arnie doesn’t have that much to do. He’s late arriving home, spends time in bed with a sore foot, wanders about a bit and declares his colours. Given more time I’m sure that Miller would have given him a greater part to play.
The action is left very much to Ben, and Turvey delivers a fine performance as a conflicted and passionate man fighting for a better deal for his country’s starving working classes.
I had a lot of sympathy for David Bromley’s Abe. He’d spent his life building up a business, trying to make a living to support his family and put his sons through college, only for the boys to throw it back in his face. Political persuasion aside, their behaviour smacks of naivety and ingratitude.
Miller throws everything in his repertoire into No Villain and, at times, the action is so frenzied that you wished he’d come up with another hour’s worth of script to turn this emotional, thought-provoking and intense drama into something truly great.
No Villain runs at Trafalgar Studios until July 23.
Thought-provoking, intense and compelling, No Villain delivers fine performances but playwright, Arthur Miller’s first play, fails to fully flesh out either its story or characters.