The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studio 2 Summer 2016
Arthur Miller wrote No Villain as a university undergraduate in 1936, and it remained, unpublished and unproduced, in the university's files until director Sean Turner found it and staged a world premiere in a London pub theatre last December. That production now transfers to the Trafalgar for a further run.
It is, unsurprisingly, not a major work, its interest lying almost entirely in the glimpses it offers of Miller's fledgeling talent. It is very autobiographical, very very much influenced by the plays of Clifford Odets, and frequently awkward in the writing and dramaturgy.
The best that can be said of its young playwright is that he had the good taste and good sense to imitate the best and most important playwright of his day, and the intelligence and dramatic instinct to see what in Odets was most worth imitating.
A boy returns from college to see that his father's formerly prosperous coat-making business is faltering and the family has been reduced from relative riches to near poverty.
A strike by unionised workers threatens to push both business and family into total bankruptcy, and while the older generation dither, the college boy and his older brother face the real prospect (which did in fact feel very real at the time) that the Depression was the death throes of Capitalism, and that some kind of new world would have to rise from its ashes.
Socialism is mentioned as a possibility but, as in Odets's plays, the call is not so much for a specific alternative to the seemingly failed economy but for a willingness to consider any and all alternatives.
The big lesson 21-year-old Miller learned from Odets was the Chekhovian insight that the largest social and economic upheavals of the day could best be dramatised indirectly, through their effect on the intimate domestic life of a single family.
Communism is spoken of almost in passing, but what we see is the paralysis of a father and businessman whose normal mode of operating clearly doesn't work but who knows no other way to operate, and the near-hysteria of a mother who has had all the security in her life taken away and now panics when her children are a little late getting home.
Curiously, the college boy, who is obviously based on Miller himself, is not the central character of the play or even much of an observer.
He hovers somewhat irrelevantly around the edge of a play that centres on his elder brother, the one who most senses the larger forces at work and who is most open to letting the old social and economic structures crumble and find something else.
It is the brother who is most frustrated by his father's stasis, who explains to his parents just what Communism is and why it is worth considering as an alternative, and who gets the rousing we-have-to-find-an-alternative closing speech borrowed bodily (in spirit if not precise language) from Odets' Awake And Sing.
Elsewhere, young Miller is frequently awkward in his transitions, characters abruptly changing topics in mid-conversation or leaping instantly from calm to high passion and back, and there are only the briefest flashes of the kind of prose poetry he would later master.
Based on this play alone you would not have predicted a dramatic career for him – or, if there was to be one, that he would so quickly escape Odets's shadow to delve so much deeper into issues of individual guilt and responsibility and into individual psychology and emotions.
Sean Turner's production gives the play every opportunity to shine but cannot disguise its limitations.
There are strong performances, of quiet despair by David Bromley as the father, of constant near-panic by Nesba Crenshaw as the mother, and of the awakening of the awareness of the need to change by George Turvey as the elder son.
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