Tonight the National Theatre plays host once again to Arthur Miller’s powerful drama All My Sons, a drama which caused a great stir when it originally opened just two years after the end of World War II. However, 50 years on with a new generation of theatregoers, does it still have has the ability to touch audiences of today? James Hazeldine, who returns to play Miller’s ‘man among men’, Joe Keller, certainly thinks so:
“It’s an incredibly raw, emotional piece, with each character having their own tragedy to play out. Anyone who fails to feel anything must be dead!” says Hazeldine, without a hint of doubt in his voice. If reactions from last year’s audiences and critics alike are anything to go by, he is probably right, and most of us will have little chance of emerging from Miller’s landmark drama with our emotions intact. In fact, Miller himself, who was in town at the time presenting his Orange Lectures, gave the production his ‘stamp of approval’, saying it was the best version he’d ever seen. “Even the title is brilliant,” Hazeldine enthuses. “It sounds like you’re about to sit down to a cosy sitcom, as if it’s all going to be ‘happy families’.”
And, of course, it’s not. The wartime tragedy follows family man and factory owner Joe Keller, as he lives out a seemingly faultless life in a suburban world of white picket fences and clapboard homes. “He is sympathetic, good-hearted man, who does all the right things: he adores his son and wife, he’s kind to the neighbours,” says Hazeldine, somewhat in defence of his character, an archetypal, all-American Dreamer. “He just happens to make one mistake in his life, albeit it a terrible one, and he pays dearly for it.” And on both counts, he is not wrong: Keller, who allows faulty aircraft parts to leave his factory and unwittingly causes the death of his son Larry, a pilot (who is declared as missing in action), eventually takes his own life. “There’s a tremendous sense of irony about it,” he goes on to say, with Keller’s ‘indiscretion’, made seemingly for the well being of his family and the business, resulting in the downfall of both, something that Hazeldine considers to be the “power of the play”.
It is surprising to think that All My Sons was almost never written thanks to the terrible slating Miller’s debut piece, The Man Who Had All The Luck, received when it first opened on Broadway, closing after just four days. Hazeldine recalls from his meeting with Miller last year that, “he almost gave up writing after that”. Thankfully, however, in 1945 Miller decided to give it another chance and All My Sons was born. Basing the moral tale on real events, Miller had hoped to put the play on sooner, although two years down the line and, Hazeldine points out, “something like 15 drafts later”, the final creation played to huge critical acclaim.
It is perhaps not hard to see why Hazeldine, who many will remember for his portrayal of fire-fighter Mike ‘Bayleaf’ Wilson on the long-running television series London’s Burning, turned down work that overlapped with the return of the Howard Davies’ production, in order to reprise his role. “I stayed unemployed for almost three months… you don’t often get to be in a play this good.” This may be true, although he and director Davies seem to be proving otherwise with a rather successful theatrical run at the moment: the pair, having already worked together at the National on Arnold Wesker’s Chips With Everything in 1997, teamed up again in 1999 for the award-winning The Iceman Cometh, in which Hazeldine played bar owner Harry Hope opposite Kevin Spacey’s travelling salesman Hickey, and Davies scooped an Olivier for his efforts.
All My Sons, which won Davies his second award for Best Director, ended up coming away from the Olivier ceremony with a whole display cabinet’s worth of awards last February, including Best Actress for Julie Walters and Best Supporting Actor for Ben Daniels. Daniels is back alongside Hazeldine, but there are a few changes that, according to fellow former cast members, have changed the play quite a lot. Hazeldine agrees: “ It does feel different, edgier, I think,” which he puts down to the new dynamics of the space, as well as some new faces in the cast.
The production, which was in the smaller Cottesloe, is now housed in the roomier Lyttelton, which Hazeldine views as more of a help than a hindrance, allowing the group as a whole, which now includes Laurie Metcalf as his leading lady and on-stage wife, the chance to explore and be creative. “Rather than think ‘hey, we’ve had a big hit with this’, we treated it like a new production.”
This is a weighty role for any actor, and one that Hazeldine is obviously passionate about, despite never having read the play before being asked to star in it. “I’ve read everything else he’s done, “ he is quick to point out, “…even his short stories. But I just think that it’s been quite overlooked compared to some of Miller’s other works, like Death of a Salesman and A View From the Bridge.” It is doubtful it will remain so for audiences who saw the play last year or those who catch it this time around. There even seems to be whispers of a possible transfer, perhaps even further west than the West End. Could James Hazeldine be keeping himself available for a future trip to New York, hoping for a repeat success of The Iceman Cometh’s transfer from London to Broadway? “I’ll probably do some TV next, “ he comments, not giving too much away. ”We’ll have to wait and see…”