This week, 88-year-old Arthur Miller was named "the world's greatest living dramatist" in a poll conducted by Britain's leading theatre website. He gained a healthy 34 per cent of the vote. Devotees of Harold Pinter, who scored 11 per cent, and supporters of Caryl Churchill, who picked up a measly 7 per cent, despite being the most unflaggingly original of playwrights, may demur at this verdict.
And yet, and yet. Watching Sean Holmes's powerful and moving revival of The Price (which by a happy coincidence opened last night), you feel it would be churlish to begrudge Miller his accolade.
The long shadow of the Wall Street crash of 1929 falls across this 1968 play. It ruined the long-dead millionaire father of the two brothers who here meet, after a protracted estrangement, to dispose of the great flea market of furniture and heirlooms (the striking set is by Anthony Lamble) piled up in the condemned family apartment. Victor, the cleverer sibling, gave up his studies and became a cop to support their stricken father. Walter did not let piety distract him from his ambitions and is now a wealthy and successful surgeon.
He returns seeking reconciliation. Victor's wife (played with a splendidly fractious frustration by the angular Sian Thomas) is desperate for her husband to accept Walter's offer of a more rewarding job. But can the slate be wiped clean so easily?
The expert acting shows you that there is right and wrong on both sides in the brothers' tangled recrimination. Larry Lamb's careworn, self-mistrustful Victor maybe does cling to the delusion that his stalled life stems from his filial sacrifice, but you feel that his eventual outburst of principled anger is justified because his love for his father was genuine and intense. Likewise, there's an irritating smack of the smug born-again preacher in the way Des McAleer's sleek Walter attempts to make amends, but you can understand why Victor's equation of failure and integrity finally reduces him, in its implied accusation, to a tearful and tempestuous exit.
Caught in the rancorous crossfire is Solomon, the 89-year-old furniture dealer who is brought out of retirement to value the goods. Warren Mitchell is superlative in this role. Shuffling, shrugging and never more manipulative than when seeming guileless, he's like an ancient Jewish vaudeville act. He's shambolic and he's shrewd; he's part-charlatan and he's wise. Such is the hinterland the performance suggests that you can fully believe that he's the veteran of four marriages and six countries. Peter Hall once wrote that Mitchell's performance as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman was among the greatest pieces of character acting he had ever seen. His Solomon is a comparably magnificent achievement.
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