Arthur Miller’s first ever play makes its world debut in Islington
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Director Sean Turner tells Alex Bellotti how he came to unearth and stage No Villain, the legendary playwright’s debut work.
Staging the world premiere of an Arthur Miller play is quite a coup for any young director. Yet with Sean Turner’s new show at the Old Red Lion, there’s an added fascination: No Villain is the first play the American ever wrote, the piece which persuaded him to become a playwright and sent him on the path towards becoming a theatrical legend.
The question is why has this never been done before? It’s not as though the script – written over six days by a 20-year-old Miller at the University of Michigan in 1936 – was previously undiscovered; in several biographies and essays, it has been acknowledged, but, until now, untouched.
“The reason it’s never been done really is just because it’s been largely forgotten,” says Turner, who spent 18 months tracking the play down in the university library. “At the time when Miller wrote the play, he wrote it to win an award that had a $250 prize, but didn’t offer a production of the show in the way that awards these days do. He didn’t have the wherewithal or means to put on a production himself, so I think it just fell by the wayside as he went on to the next thing.”
Described by its author as “the most autobiographical play I would ever write”, No Villain follows the story of a garment industry strike that sees a left wing student challenging his factory proprietor father.
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Full of the family conflicts and Marxist theory that would later inform iconic works such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, the new production is backed by the Miller Trust. Celebrating the centenary of Miller’s birth, it explores the period of his life before fame and his turbulent marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
“He uses autobiographical characters a hell of a lot in his work so that in itself is nothing spectacular,” says Turner, “but what’s interesting here is that he deals with a part of his life that he doesn’t deal with in other areas of work, or he does in a more cloak and dagger way.
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“What eventually caused him so many problems in later life were Marx and communism and how deeply he was involved with that at the time. Fast forward 30 odd years and he’s hauled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and called a communist, and it plagued him and meant that his work still isn’t produced much in America till this day.”
Another pertinent question, of course, concerns the quality of the piece itself. Turner admits that when he finally found the text, he had a heart-in-mouth moment about it potentially being “dreadful and a letdown”; although such fears were quickly allayed, the 29-year-old is aware the critics will be suspicious.
“The big obstacle that we’ve had in promoting the play is that people tend to think that when a play’s lost for that long, there’s a damn good reason why it’s stayed lost. Trying to combat that has been difficult.
“As a director, I think you also have to be careful not to get dragged too much into the autobiographical aspect. It would be very easy for us to do character studies of the people he’s talking about in real life, but then we wouldn’t be creating afresh and I wouldn’t be giving my actors the opportunity to originate these characters and let them come from a place that’s right for them.”
For Turner, the project represents the highest point of a seven year career in theatre which has seen him co-found Shakespeare touring troupe Permanently Bard and recently direct the Bush Theatre’s Nahda, a contemporary look at Arab culture.
Personally, he admits it will also prove the culmination of a lifelong admiration for Miller. The south Londoner recalls one of his first theatre-going experiences was seeing Death of a Salesman, and he hopes that No Villain will prove similarly memorable.
“There are few writers in the world whose first plays were bonifide brilliant works and I think this is one of them, I really do. He starts out as a very fully formed writer; he’s already exploring the same dilemmas that go through the rest of his work, and is already writing with this rich language full of poetry and domestic situations.
“He just has the innate ability to do it. Those truly great writers are just born with it – to make others feel what they feel.”
No Villain runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until January 9. Visit oldredliontheatre.co.uk