Major playwright, minor key

Cathal Cleary tells Shelley Marsden about dusting off an obscure Arthur Miller play for a UK audience

Patricia Hamilton and Karen Frick are in a psychiatric hospital, each recovering from a nervous breakdown. Their respective husbands meet in the hospital’s waiting room and, while the two women share in their despair, the men find common ground in their troubles but clash in how they deal with their emotions. One deals works through his problems with the help of manual labour and family life, the other with wealth and industry.

Arthur Miller’s rarely-performed play The Last Yankee is, like much of his later work, a loy-key conversation piece, a dark, thoughtful exploration of society, unfulfilled dreams and the complexity of relationships. F irst performed at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York in 1993, it is soon to get its first major London revival thanks to Roscommon director Cathal Cleary, who is bringing it to London’s The Print Room next month.

It might sound like a gloomy night out, but South London-based Cleary, 31, says it’s not half as bleak as it seems: “There’s a lot of humour, albeit dark, in The Last Yankee. Arthur Miller’s extremely good at that. David Thacker, who directed this originally at the Young Vic, was good friends with him. “Apparently, Miller was there in the rehearsal room at one point and he said: ‘I see this as a comedy, you know’. It’s not immediately apparent, but like all the best humour, it comes out of a difficult situation. In my production, we’re going to treat the subject very seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously, the best way to find the comedy within.”

Will audiences over here relate to this New England tale of marital angst? Cleary thinks so. “Miller writes people brilliantly. It doesn’t matter if they’re from America, Ireland or England. And anyone whose marriage has been under strain – which look, must be nearly every married couple at some point – can relate to them. Miller writes very relatable characters.”

Cleary is excited about the fact that very few audience members, including the regular theatre-goers, will be familiar with this piece. It was premiered in 1993, and Cleary’s production is the first in London since then.  Most of us all familiar with the ‘big guns’ like Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, but is there not a very good reason why this one slipped the net?!

“The reason certainly isn’t anything to do with the quality of the play”, says Cleary. “Go beyond the big Miller classics and there are a lot of genuinely good one-acts that for whatever reason go missing, especially when you’re talking about his later plays. I fancied this one because I went looking for a rarely-performed play from a well-known writer; it’s not something a director gets the chance to do too often. You’re given some really good characters that have never been explored, so most people will get to know them through our play for the first time, and that’s unusual.”

Cleary obviously likes the idea of offering up something potentially fresh from a heavyweight playwright people think they know all there is to know about. “If you’re lucky enough to direct Hamlet or Faust, people go and see numerous different versions of them and they no doubt bring their own sets of expectations. With the quality of a writer like Arthur Miller, you know the material’s going to be good, but you’re working on what feels like a new play. It’s refreshing.  I can put my own stamp on it and make it unique.”

Miller wasn’t Cleary’s first choice, though. He had wanted to direct Eugene O’Neill’s short play Hughie, but as the rights weren’t available, he went on the hunt for another big American writer that had done a short play with a small cast. Miller was one of the first Cleary came across in his hunt for the obscure, and he’s glad he did.

Jamie Vartan, who was behind the epic, abandoned factory set for Enda Walsh’s Misterman, starring Cillian Murphy, has something special in mind for The Last Yankee, which Cleary won’t give away but says “audiences will be pleasantly surprised” about. Though his play doesn’t have the finances Mistermen did (“I think Enda might have put a good word in for me!”), he says they’ve come up with something pretty unique.

“Right now it’s the characters and who I can imagine playing them”, he says on how the play is progressing. “Casting’s the big thing for me, and so far we’ve got some really top-notch theatre actors involved – Paul Hickey, who was recently in Children of the Sun at the National Theatre, and Andy De La Torre, who was in People by Alan Bennett, also at the National.  These guys have worked with the best of the best. I’m chuffed I have them on board.”

The actors in The Last Yankee are all older than Cleary, which is also new for him. In the last play he directed, the winning Disco Pigs at The Young Vic in 2011, the cast were all in their twenties closer to his own age, and he admits he is relishing a different dynamic: “The prospect of mining these actors’ breadth of experience and knowledge, what they’ll teach me and hopefully what I can bring to the table is something I’m really looking forward to.”

Disco Pigs in its own way was special for Cleary, whose directing credits include Appointment in Limbo at the Dublin Fringe, The Donahue Sisters and The Cripple of Inishmaan, both at Town Hall Theatre, Galway.  He received the coveted JMK Young Director Award in 2011 and used the prize money (£12,000) to put on Enda Walsh’s explosive two –hander, about the lifelong but unhealthy relationship between two Cork teenagers Runt and Pig. It’s often performed by amateur dramatic societies, but until Cleary tackled it, Disco Pigs hadn’t enjoyed a big-scale revival in London for a long time.

For the full article, see this week’s Irish World (17 August 2013).

The Last Yankee, by Arthur Miller is at The Print Room, London from Sept 7 to Oct 5. See www.the-print-room.org for more.

 

 

 

 

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