I feel a little mean criticising a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony winning play that has now become a movie. In the 2016 stage revival of the 1983 August Wilson play, both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the movie’s stars, picked up best actor awards for their performances, alongside fellow actors Stephen Henderson (Bono), Mykelti Williamson (Gabe) and Russell Hornsby (Lyons).
But, and here’s the rub. This is very much a play. Not a movie.
Ever seen a good movie version of All my Sons, A view from the Bridge, Death of a Salesman? (A minor success of the latter hit our screens in 2000, winning a couple of Golden Globes, but nothing of significance from the Miller pen has made the cut in the last 50 years.)
That’s because Miller, like Wilson, wrote for the stage. Long, often deeply allegorical speeches populate both of their plays about life, the universe, family, honour, duty, human fragility and responsibility. Meaty subjects that work in the intimacy of theatre where you can almost smell the actor’s vulnerability.
Hats off to Denzel Washington for taking a modern theatre classic, crafted very much in the style of Arthur Miller, and attempting to recreate that dramatic tension on the screen. Incidentally it has taken 35 years to reach us because August Wilson strictly instructed that this ultimate of ‘Black’ plays could only be directed on screen by a ‘black’ director.
But, my overall criticism is that, from the opening extended and overly vernacular scene (for my ears) which is a dialogue between Troy (Washington) Bono (Henderson) and Rose (Davis), this feels like a stage production with a few wide angle shots and locations thrown in.
(As an aside, in the first scene the continuity person needs a rocket as the levels in the very obvious ‘pint’ of gin that Troy shares goes up and down like a yo-yo. A criminal mistake given that the prop is central to illustrate Troy’s dependence on alcohol.)
The play’s title is a full-on allegory about the role of the fence that Troy laboriously builds throughout the play (something Donald Trump might surely prick his ears up to). On the one hand it’s a physical and protective barrier (Trump’s not much cop at complex allegories so that’s him out of the way now) on the other it’s both an emotional barrier representing Troy’s inability to accept his sons’ affections and a shield to the Grim Reaper who stalks his life.
Both Washington and Davis are excellent in their roles, as are the supporting ensemble, but I could not escape, almost at any point, the fact that this felt a cheat. A pirate movie for those of us who couldn’t see it (like me) in the theatre, where it should be seen. It made me distinctly uncomfortable.
It’s like watching pop stars mime in film studios. Somehow fake, unreal, unworthy.
For all its strengths I’m reminded of a quote by a former Hibernian FC manager, Bobby Williamson, a dull and forgettable man in any other scheme of things.
He uttered the immortal sentence, after another 0 – 0 draw, “If you want entertainment, go to the theatre.”
That’s how I saw this production.