Staging early lost works by writers who found success later in their careers always seems like a bad idea to me. If they didn’t get staged at the time, there is usually a reason. So it was with some scepticism that I went to see Arthur Miller’s first ever play, No Villain, in its first production almost 80 years after it was written (first seen at the Old Red Lion theatre in December 2015). However, this isn’t any old writer we’re talking about: this is Arthur Miller, and of course his genius was already beginning to shine through, even in his very first foray into theatrical writing. Although not quite on a level with his later masterpieces, No Villain is an incredibly accomplished first play. Additionally, it provides a very interesting insight into Miller’s life, interests and writerly development, as well as being strong enough to stand on its own.
Max Dorey’s design stays true the era with a detailed set. The low ceiling and abundance of props and furniture create a sense of claustrophobia, of lives lived on top of one another. The play opens with the Simon family eagerly awaiting the return of son Arnie from university. The relationships are immediately shown to be complex. They snap and disagree with each other in quite a vicious way, and there is more than just a hint of incest in some of the interactions. We initially mistake a brother and sister for lovers, entwined on the floor as the play opens. The reasons for their irritability become quite clear: Mr Simons’ coat business is struggling in the Depression, and the comfortable life they were once used to has been replaced by the very real fear of poverty.
Sean Turner’s production is well-paced and tightly directed, with tension running through the full eighty minutes like a tightly-wound piece of string. The performances on the whole are enthusiastic – but sometimes veer into being slightly too enthusiastic. David Bromley (Abe Simon) and George Turvey (Ben Simon) have a wonderfully realistic sparring relationship, but it peaks too early, meaning that the constant arguing becomes a slight headache rather than a continually engaging part of the performance. The same can be said of Nesba Crenshaw (Esther Simon). She very effectively captures the jitteriness of a woman on the edge, a constant worrier, concerned about the future of her family; but her shrieks and faffing become ever so slightly grating. Maxine, the younger sister, played by Helen Coles, is a little disappointing. For such a fascinating character, I would have liked the portrayal to be a little more nuanced. Instead we are given a bit of a flat, clichéd version of a little girl, which feels a bit sickly when performed by a grown woman. On the whole, it feels like the characterisation has been focused a little too strongly on the central three male characters, meaning that some of the minor parts are a little underdeveloped. For example, the Grandpa character (Kenneth Jay) felt a bit redundant. Although he provides some well-timed moments of comic relief, his death does not have the emotional impact that perhaps it could have.
Miller grapples with the complexities of Marxist theory here, setting a father and son opposite each other, against a backdrop of an industry strike. He explores the financial pressures and subsequent devastation on a middle-class American family and the generational ideological clash that ensues. In many ways, No Villain is the premonition of where Miller's work will go, with clear foundations laid for The Crucible, All My Sons and most noticeably, Death of a Salesman.
However, what is most valuable about No Villain is that it shows us Miller had a clear direction for his work from a young age and shows the development of his social and political ideologies, his testing their representations onstage. It is a gripping and realistic drama, which hints at all the great things to come.