THEATRE / Miller's winter windfall: Paul Taylor on the British premiere of Arthur Miller's The Last Yankee

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'Y ou're 75. Stop writing for Chrissake and give the rest of us a break.' This was Arnold Wesker's jokey reverential message to Arthur Miller in 1990. It's a request that Mr Miller has ignored. A late surge of productivity has given us The Ride Down Mount Morgan (which had its first airing in London in 1991) and there's another play lined up, we're told, for next year. Meanwhile, opening just a week after the premiere in New York, another new work, The Last Yankee, now takes to the stage at the Young Vic in a superbly acted production by David Thacker.

Veterans of the The Ride Down Mount Morgan could be forgiven for quailing slightly at the prospect of yet more winter-garnerings from this great talent. Mount Morgan has, after all, strong claims to be ranked as one of the more embarrassing plays composed by a major dramatist. Like a tacky boulevard comedy with philosophical pretensions, it presented us with a bed-bound bigamist, rumbled in his double-dealing after a car crash. But the protagonist (the play more than half-wanted you to believe) was not so much cheating on two women as cheating Death. 'I was exploding with life] How can that be evil?' he remarked of one piece of sexual fast footwork. The less grandiose explanations were accorded only token consideration in this portrait of the two- timer as existential hero.

The Last Yankee is also built round hospital-visiting (hospital beds being to late Miller what dustbins were to Beckett), but the play itself is in hearteningly healthy shape. Set in a mental institution, it focuses its wryly probing attention on two female depressives and their husbands: Leroy (Peter Davison), the Yankee of the title, who comes from old Founding Fathers stock but has chosen to be a carpenter, and Frick (David Healy), a beefy businessman unable to communicate anything but disappointment and shame to his dumpy, doe-eyed wife, Karen (Helen Burns).

Zoe Wanamaker's riveting Pat (a volatile cocktail of elation, self- mistrust and shrewish resentment) has secretly weaned herself off medication. Could a woman trashing her pills and going off to face undrugged reality with her husband be seen as a metaphor for contemporary America as it shakes off the chimera of conservative ideology? As national pulse-taker-in-chief, Miller isn't going to rule out such a reading. The play works best, though, on less allegorical levels. Davison's finely judged performance, for example, helps you notice how carefully Miller qualifies any impression that this character has got all life's problems taped.

Pat's depression, Leroy claims, stems from the overweening expectations of life bred by her Swedish immigrant family. His own individualist philosophy is that 'we're really all on a one-person line' and so should abjure the rat-race. It's clear, however, in the way he loses his rag when the businessman shows surprise at his being a carpenter and in his incredulous anger when a man from one of the 'oldest upstanding families' turns common thief, that his background still governs his reflexes. Rather like D H Lawrence, whose fulminations against 'sex in the head' were often tortuously theoretical, Leroy is a man who can only approach the simple life in a complicated conceptual way.

People who believe that their depressiveness is a chemical condition and as treatable an illness as, say, diabetes may take exception to its being used as the emblem of a murkier malaise of the spirit. And the handling, throughout, of poor confused Karen (who eventually does a pathetic tap- dancing routine to 'Swanee River' in top hat, satin shorts and tails) could be accused of wanting it both ways: encouraging laughter at and sympathy for. The dialogue, though, is full of crackly delights, not least whenever Ms Wanamaker's voice does a derisive dip, ready to lay into something. 'You might as well salt your shower curtain and chop it with a tomato': ever heard a better put- down of kale?

The Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (071-928 6363).

(Photograph omitted)