Last week, the 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 an impressive 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 deeply moving revival of The Price (which opened a couple of days after the announcement), you feel it would be churlish to begrudge Miller his accolade.
From 40 years on, 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 meet, after a protracted rift, 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 duty distract him from his ambitions and is now a wealthy big-shot 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 recriminations. Larry Lamb's careworn, self-doubting Victor may need to believe that his filial sacrifice was the main cause of his lack of success in life, when it is evidently also a matter of a paralysing temperamental wariness. But you feel that his eventual outburst of furious principled anger against his brother is justified because no amount of cynical reinterpretation can alter the simple fact that his love for his father was genuine and intense. It's a terribly touching moment when the truth of this seems to hit his wife, as if for the first time. 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 stubborn equation of failure and integrity finally reduces him to a tearful and tempestuous exit. The impotent idealist and the ruthless achiever are like sundered halves of a healthier whole: the two fine actors communicate that estrangement in all its intricate, gut-twisting intimacy.
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 often gives the impression that he's in a world of his own - as when, hilariously, he takes his own sweet time to unshell and consume the boiled egg lunch he's brought. But his eye never leaves the ball. He's shambolic and he's shrewd; he's part charlatan and part sage. Such is the hinterland the performance suggests that you can fully believe that he's the veteran of four marriages, a daughter's suicide and life in six countries. Unlike the other characters, who brood obsessively over the past, he represents the spirit of survival and irrepressible curiosity about the future. Peter Hall once wrote that Mitchell's performance as Willy Loman in Miller's Death of a Salesman was among the greatest pieces of character acting he had ever seen. This Solomon is a comparably magnificent achievement.
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