By Arthur Miller
Directed by Mike Tweddle
Company: Tobacco Factory Theatres Company
Venue: Tobacco Factory
Date: Tuesday 24th April 2018
This was a fantastic performance. In contrast to their Macbeth earlier this year, this production worked brilliantly to bring out the story and the characters, and kept us riveted throughout. The rest of the audience enjoyed it too, and with many younger folk among us, it was a great showcase for Arthur Miller’s work as well as this company’s.
The set was pleasingly simple. Through a light smoky haze, we could see that the level (oh, thank God!) floor had an assemblage of pallets on it – at least, that’s how it looked at the start. On closer inspection, there were larger pallets in a double diamond formation centre stage beneath three more pallets of decreasing size, the top one being connected to a pulley. There were two plain chairs stacked on the top pallet with some rope holding them in. Another pile of ‘stuff’ – side table and chair – were positioned to the right of the platform not far from us, and from what I could see there was a similar pile of furniture on the left side. A green metal light fitting was suspended overhead. With the sound of seagulls calling in the background, the set was very evocative of a dock, but with plenty of possibilities for the domestic scenes.
Several dock workers came on before the start, and congregated around the pallets, sitting on some of them. While the audience took their seats – it was an early 7 p.m. start, which may have caught some people out – the community cast characters milled around, smoking and chatting with each other, until finally we were good to go. A foghorn sounded and the cast swung into action, unchaining and unloading everything to set up the Carbone living room – table and chair towards the back, rocking chair plus side table front right, exit to the kitchen at the back.
There was lots of shouting and music while this was going on, and as the men left, the last two passed by the lawyer Alfieri (Simon Armstrong) who began the play with his description of the locale and its people. Then we met Eddie (Mark Letheren), Beatrice (Katy Stephens) and Catherine (Laura Walden). Their opening scene gave us the background to their characters and situation, and prepared us for the arrival of two of Beatrice’s cousins, Marco (Aaron Anthony) and Rodolfo (Joseph Tweedale).
The difficulties in Eddie’s relationship with Catherine, Beatrice’s niece, were apparent before the cousins turned up: he was over-protective and reluctant to accept her increasing need for independence, while she was too childishly fond of a grown man who was not her father, and a bit too physical in expressing that fondness. All three had argued over Catherine accepting a job immediately instead of staying another year at school. When Eddie finally agreed to let her take the job, she leapt on him, wrapping her legs around him and giving him a long hug: it was borderline creepy. As soon as Catherine saw Rodolfo, an attractive blond Italian young man close to her in age, there was only going to be one, unhappy ending.
Eddie’s discomfort at Catherine’s obvious attraction to Rodolfo was channelled into what in other circumstances would have been reasonable warnings. Rodolfo sang Paper Doll, beautifully, but as Eddie pointed out, there had been no singers in their apartment for years, and if other people heard him singing they would know there was a new arrival. The opening conversation had made it clear that some people informed against their neighbours to the immigration authorities, and for safety’s sake, the cousins had to keep a low profile. His warning made sense, and Marco, the older and more responsible of the two brothers, agreed immediately, insisting that Rodolfo be quiet, but already Marco was looking at Eddie with a degree of caution as well. Being married, and with three children, Marco was desperate to earn money to send back to his wife in Italy, so he was prepared to put up with a lot for this opportunity, but he could clearly sense that there was more going on. Rodolfo, bless his youthful, innocent heart, was oblivious.
The trouble began to build in the next scene, when Eddie was waiting by the front right pillar for Catherine to come home. Beatrice came back first, and while Eddie was still harping on about Catherine and Rodolfo’s relationship, Beatrice was more concerned about theirs – troubles of the marriage bed, as it were. Nothing for three months, apparently. When she went in, Eddie encountered a couple of the longshoremen, Mike (Jack Riddiford) and Louis (Kirris Riviere), whose light-hearted descriptions of fun-loving Rodolfo twisted the knife even deeper in Eddie’s guts.
When Rodolfo and Catherine did get back, Rodolfo was astute enough to see that a storm was brewing around Eddie, and he left them alone. Catherine’s enthusiasm for Rodolfo riled Eddie, and it was clear he was missing her and the way things used to be. His warnings about Rodolfo just wanting US citizenship would have been appropriate if it wasn’t for his evident hatred for anyone who came between him and Catherine, but it was enough to unsettle her. She fled indoors and he took a walk.
Once inside, Beatrice finally had a chance to talk some sense to her niece. Although she hadn’t shown it before, she was well aware that Catherine’s behaviour was as much to blame as Eddie’s for the problems they were having. Catherine needed to grow up, and it wasn’t certain at this point whether she could actually do that and emerge from Eddie’s shadow. But Beatrice was right – she had to make her own choices. I had a good view of Katy during this scene, and she was absolutely perfect in her performance, and was well matched by the newcomer, Laura.
Next up was Eddie’s first visit to Alfieri, and the men soon had the room changed round to the lawyer’s office. The table was more in the centre, the tablecloth was removed, and the ceiling light came down a bit lower. Eddie’s increasing emotional difficulties were becoming painful to watch, but the legal advice was clear – there was nothing Eddie could do, apart from the illegal immigrant angle, and Eddie was appalled at that prospect, for now.
The men quickly put the room back together after Alfieri had finished giving Eddie some practical advice, which we knew he wouldn’t take. Back in the apartment, a record player and records had been added to the mix, and after some conversation which segued into a power play over how Rodolfo was behaving, Catherine put on a record – Paper Doll – to dance with Rodolfo, though whether it was deliberate provocation or just an attempt to assert herself I wasn’t sure. Either way, it didn’t help the situation, and Eddie screwed up the newspaper from sheer tension. Everyone was uncomfortable, and then Eddie started talking about boxing, even offering to take Marco and Rodolfo to see a match sometime. With Catherine off making coffee, Eddie also suggested he give Rodolfo some boxing lessons, and they did some light sparring. Catherine was concerned when she came back in, but although Eddie hit Rodolfo, he didn’t hurt him too much.
While this situation was passed off by most of them as a ‘friendly’ event, Marco had been watching it all closely, and took this opportunity to draw a line in the sand. He put a chair in the middle of the floor and asked Eddie if he could lift the chair with one hand, demonstrating how to do it. Eddie gave it a go, but couldn’t manage it, as the chair kept tipping over to one side. Marco then showed his strength: as he lifted the chair up high, one arm behind his back, he looked Eddie straight in the face, telling him without words and without violence that he was protecting his brother. With a quick flash of light, we were at the interval. Whew.
The tension of that final scene in the first half had been pretty strong, and even the fact that the chair had been so flimsy that I could probably have lifted it with one hand didn’t spoil it. They added a short Christmas tree to the room during the interval, removing the record player. On the table they placed some cloth with a pattern on it, and that was that.
For the restart, Rodolfo came on with some of the longshoremen and they clustered round the far right pillar. The big man started singing, and Rodolfo joined in, while Beatrice and Catherine entered the room and put the star on top of the tree. The lawyer came on as well, carrying a bottle of whisky – he informed us of the ‘habit’ of crates of whisky falling out of the net just before Christmas, so presumably this was one way he got paid over the holidays.
Rodolfo joined Catherine in the room, with the other men leaving the stage. Beatrice had gone, and they were alone together. Catherine began questioning Rodolfo about where they would live when they were married – basically she wanted to know if he wanted to marry her to get citizenship or because he loved her. She claimed that she would be happy to live with him in Italy, but I suspect that was just part of the test. She was troubled, and he wasn’t happy either. Their argument showed how much she had moved on, but also allowed her to express her concern about turning her back on a man who had supported her for her whole life. Rodolfo saw things in black and white: he wouldn’t take Catherine to Italy to suffer the poverty of ordinary Italians – that would be cruel. He did want to marry her and to work and have a good life in America. The argument over, their reconciliation led to kissing as they moved off stage into her bedroom.
This was the worst possible time for Eddie to turn up, so, naturally, he did. Slightly drunk, he took a half bottle of whisky out of a coat pocket. There was laughter as he took another bottle out, and then another – his jacket was full of bottles. He reacted badly when Rodolfo followed Catherine out of the bedroom area, especially as the young man was doing up his top shirt button. Eddie told him to leave, which made up Catherine’s mind for her, and she told Eddie she would be leaving too. Eddie kissed her, which led to Rodolfo intervening, and from that it was only a short step for Eddie to grab Rodolfo and kiss him. It was a shocking moment, not so much for the kiss, but for what it showed of Eddie’s inner turmoil, and it lifted the tension a notch higher.
Back in the lawyer’s office, Alfieri advised Eddie to leave the young couple alone, but Eddie was on a treadmill of doom. When he left the lawyer’s office, he went to a public phone – a receiver dropped down by the far right pillar – and called the immigration department: the tension grew even more.
In the apartment, Beatrice was taking down the Christmas decorations. Eddie tried to justify himself to her, but while she still loved him, she was prepared to fight her own corner, as well as trying to get Eddie reconciled to the idea of Catherine and Rodolfo getting married – they’d set a date for the following week. Eddie was clearly in meltdown, and things became worse when he learned that Marco and Rodolfo, who had moved to an upstairs apartment, had been joined by two new illegals. He used that as an excuse to warn Catherine to get Marco and Rodolfo moved straightaway, but it was already too late: the men from Immigration were on their doorstep.
After checking Eddie’s apartment, the men moved onto the rest of the house. Beatrice realised, from the look of despair in Eddie’s eyes, that he was the one who’d turned the men in, and she was horrified. Marco also realised it, and he spat in Eddie’s face when he was brought down, later accusing him outright in full view of the neighbours and bystanders who’d come on to witness their removal. Eddie protested his innocence, but nobody seemed to believe him, with even Louis turning away in disgust.
Beatrice was left hugging Catherine as the furniture was removed and the sections of pallet shifted to create a long platform lengthwise down the stage. A chair was brought on for the meeting between Marco, Rodolfo and Alfieri, with Marco sitting and the other two standing. Catherine was also present. The crux of their conversation was that Alfieri wanted Marco to promise not to kill Eddie if he, Alfieri, got him out on bail for Rodolfo’s wedding. Marco was very resistant to this idea: as he said, “In my country, he would be dead now.” Gradually they won him over, or so it seemed. Alfieri hit Marco’s hand when he said, “this is not God, Marco”, meaning to leave vengeance to the Almighty. Finally Marco agreed to leave Eddie alone, but would he honour that promise?
The rocking chair was at the far end of the platform, and Eddie was sitting in it as Beatrice came out from the bedroom, ready to go to the wedding. Eddie had forbidden Beatrice to go unless Marco came and apologised to him first – no chance of that – and Beatrice was pleading to go for her sister’s sake. Catherine emerged from the bedroom, also dressed in her best clothes, and when Eddie wouldn’t back down she turned on him. Rodolfo arrived to warn Eddie that Marco was on his way, and by this time the whole place was crackling with tension.
Beatrice finally confronted Eddie with a truth he did not want to hear, that he wanted Catherine himself, and although he denied it, he was shaking. By this time they were on the bare platform, with Marco coming at Eddie and the group of bystanders gathering at the edges of the stage. Marco and Eddie fought, while Rodolfo held Catherine back and Mike held onto Beatrice. Eddie drew a knife, but Marco managed to stab him instead, and he died. Beatrice and Catherine ran to his body, and then Alfieri spoke the final lines standing over Eddie. Lights. Rapturous applause, with many people standing, me included. And all totally deserved.
It’s hard to follow such a powerful ending – I can still feel the emotions as I type these notes – but I must mention the excellent cast, who did such a great job with this play. Mark Letheren may have missed out on his role in Macbeth, but this more than made up for it, and he was well matched by the other actors. The director deserves praise as well – he kept the pace tight and focused, and with a production as good as this one, I wonder if this play should rank as Miller’s masterpiece rather than Death Of A Salesman. We look forward to next year’s offerings from the company.
© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me