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Resurrection Blues

In comedies there are no heroes
---- Henri
Resurrection Blues
Maximilian Schell as General Felix Barriaux
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Acclaimed film director Robert Altman comes to Kevin Spacey's Old Vic to direct Arthur Miller's final play Resurrection Blues starring Hollywood veteran, Maximilian Schell. Kathryn Osenlund reviewed the play in Philadelphia, since when it has had quite extensive revisions and has lost more than half an hour from its running time. To read Kathryn's review in 2003 and for the plot summary go here. As Kathryn mentions, Resurrection Blues is a major departure for Arthur Miller and is more black comedy and satire than the social and political commentary we associate with the greatest of Miller's plays.

Some of the humour makes sense; like Monty Python's A Life of Brian, the joke is what would modern society make of the Jesus stories. The satire is a comment on what kind of materialistic and shallow civilisation we have forged in two thousand years. In this case the purported saviour is called Ralph. The crucifixion joke is followed up on its commercial potential with American advertising executive, Skip L Cheesborough (Matthew Modine) planning the movie, the spin off merchandise and even the theme park. The audience, at first embarrassed and obviously with little idea of what to expect, settles down to laugh but there is a feeling here of disappointment at such talent being involved in the weakest and unfinished of Miller's writing. Just occasionally the odd phrase reminds us of Miller's genius, the observation by Skip that there are no paintings of the crucifixion with a doctor present, and his sardonic comment, "It's bad enough implying that the Son of God is Christian without making him Jewish as well".

Unlike the previews, Maximilian Schell was word perfect the night I saw the play but his comic timing seems less secure. Still his performance is enjoyable. He is General Felix Barriaux, the bombastic dictator of a South American tin pot republic. Much of the humour in the first act is centred on his outrageous view as how to maintain power and to eliminate the opposition. In the second act, it is his sexual power under the microscope, in his seduction of film director Emily Shapiro (Jane Adams) which is very funny as Miller describes some of the inherent problems of an old man trying to impress a young girl. "I could function with you Emily!"he says in what must be an often thought but rarely expressed chat up line.

James Fox too seems out of character as the General's literary cousin but Peter McDonald brilliantly illuminates his small part as Stanley, the hippie. The accents are confusing as characters related to each other bear no similarity of voice. Neve Campbell seems miscast to me as the General's niece, Jeanine. Her theatre experience is very limited and this part calls for great skill in conveying a girl paralysed and in pain. She is given the difficult task of opening the play from a wheelchair, atop a ridiculous set which is clumsy and exposing for the actor. The design is meant to recreate a previous civilisation maybe Mayan, Incan or Aztec with stone stairs and giant stone chambers but it all seems too large for perspective. The mountainous backdrop screens are impressive, atmospherically cloudy at times, but the whole set needs to be considerably more intimate, less cavernous and with more opportunity for the audience to connect with the cast.

It seems to me that Altman's film style directing -- letting the actors develop their role -- is fundamentally unsuited to Arthur Miller's precise and carefully thought out writing. I do not know how much of this text was finished by Miller before his death, only that he revised the 2002 version in 2004. I quote Altman's words to Jane Adams reprinted in the programme, "We don't have to hear every word -- it's ok if it's a bit of mish-mash. I don't care what you're saying to your mother on the phone, Jane. People don't have to hear every line" Mish-mash and Miller seem incompatible.

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Robert Altman

Starring: Maximilian Schell
With: James Fox, Neve Campbell, Peter McDonald, Jane Adams, Matthew Modine, Peter Brooke, Sarah Mennell, George Antoni, Megan Arellanes, Nigel Francis, Jeffry Kaplow, Caroline Madden, Ronan Summers
Set Design: Robin Wagner
Lighting: Rick Fisher
Sound: Matt McKenzie
Costume Design: Jenny Beavan
Running time: One hours 55 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6628
Booking to 22nd April 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th March 2006 performance at the Old Vic, Waterloo Road London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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