Melissa Blease reviews Arthur Miller’s The Price, starring David Suchet, Brendan Coyle and Adrian Lukis, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 25 August
What price do we put on our past? That’s basically the premise of one of Arthur Miller’s lesser-celebrated plays, written five decades ago this year, chosen by artistic director of Theatre Royal Bath’s Summer Season Jonathan Church as this year’s flagship production – and worth every penny of the cost of any ticket you can still get hold of before the run ends.
The drama takes place in the attic of a huge, rambling New York brownstone – formerly long-estranged brothers Victor and Walter’s family home, now due for demolition – in the late 1960s. Victor is a cop who sacrificed his dreams of taking a more ambitious career path in order to take care of his father, whose own once-prosperous career was wiped out during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Victor’s wife Esther is largely exasperated by the choices and sacrifices that Victor made. Walter, however, chose to look after himself instead, and became a successful surgeon. And then along comes Gregory Solomon: the octogenarian second-hand furniture dealer who, it transpires, fully understands the value of which brother is actually owed what, and by whom.
If Miller’s meticulously delineative dialogue takes the starring role, Simon Higlett’s exquisite set – a complex tangle of vintage furniture from opulent armoires to sumptuous sofas by way of the kind of ornate cabinets, mirrors and once-treasured domestic paraphernalia that suggest a formerly luxurious, grand environment, suspended around the stage – easily deserves an equal share of the spotlight. The designer’s innate sense of artistry has created a literal interpretation of nostalgia against which a drama analysing how interpretations of past situations affect our destiny is played out.
In the role of Solomon, David Suchet is an absolute joy to behold. His crotchety-but-wise character’s plushly-upholstered backstory is woven into the tapestry of every line he delivers – and Solomon most definitely has the best lines. His character may be one part comedy and one part tragedy, but Suchet is all parts extraordinarily charismatic, at all times. As a result, he’s an uber-demanding theatrical sparring partner to be pitted against.
But both Brendan Coyle as Victor and Adrian Lukis as Walter do an admirable job of fighting their corner – Victor cloaking himself ever tighter in a passive-aggressive armour of martyrdom as Walter’s carefully-curated image of self-satisfied success story subtly erodes before our eyes.
Victor’s wife Esther is perhaps the weakest link in the character chain here: not quite as authentically lifelike as her three cohorts, and stuck with lines that are occasionally a little bit too cliched Desperate Housewives for comfort – she is, perhaps, the character that dates the play’s vintage. Reflecting the status of women in American society at the time of writing, Miller had a tendency to allow his female characters (housewives; mothers; secretaries) to merely react to circumstances rather than affect an outcome while he concentrated on elevating ‘ordinary men’ to hero status. But Sara Stewart brings a fresh, modern edge of frustrated despondency to the role, a saving grace that owes more to Stewart’s proficiency and Church’s directorial skills than to Miller’s script.
But this is the only aspect of The Price that puts a date on the era in which it was written. Enduring themes around conflict, duty, emotional turbulence, mortality and money are enduring because they’re consistently, perpetually relevant, to all of us, at all times, regardless of gender. You may find your mind wandering to what you’d be saying, thinking or doing if you were a fifth character in any given scene (if, that is, you’re not busy choosing which piece of furniture you’d like to keep) – and then suddenly, it’s as though one of those characters has read your mind.
Reviving one of a legendary writer’s lesser-known plays can often be an experiment that goes wrong, but The Price is most definitely right.