Arthur Miller’s American Clock at the Old Vic

The current revival at the Old Vic of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock prompts some thoughts on current trends in theatre productions and the problems that they create for audiences. In a number of recent revivals of the classics, there has been much gender swapping and the playing of “white” roles by actors of different ethnicities. One practical explanation may be the perceived necessity of giving women and ethnic minorities a fairer share in the allocation of roles. But there are probably more important reasons: because the directors believe that the roles are gender-wise or ethically neutral or – which is more likely – because the objective is to prompt audiences to reflect on their gender or ethnic preconceptions.

I have no problems with any of this and, to give a pertinent example, the casting of Maxine Peake as Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange was revelatory in terms both of questioning sexual identity and of exploring the Prince’s personality and temperament. However, there must be a minimum degree of plausibility in the acting for the conceit to operate successfully. The Pop-Up Shakespeare season in York involved much gender swapping, most of it quite convincing, but – in an otherwise marvellous Dream (see – the attempts of a very masculine Theseus to turn into Titania failed miserably and was a major distraction.

Behind this argument is another consideration. To be engaged in the play, the audience must, to some extent at least, identify with the characters and, perhaps more importantly, be able easily to determine who is who and what is happening on the stage. In other words, whatever else a director might wish to do with a play, preserving clarity of narrative is an essential requirement. And it was in this respect that Rachel Chavkin’s production of The American Clock was deficient. In a play which was about the impact of the great stockmarket crash of 1929 on a family and their neighbours, she understandably thought that, faithful to the original, to portray these people simply as Jewish, did not do justice to the other ethnic groups seriously affected by the economic disaster. She thus had three actors, Jewish, Asian and Black respectively, simultaneously playing the key roles. I, and I suspect many in the audience, found the result was confusion which significantly spoiled the impact of Miller’s fine drama.