Antony Sher delivers an impressive performance in the West End revival of Arthur Miller's play about an unhappy couple in the 1930s.
The play focuses on Phillip Gellburg (Antony Sher), a man whose complex feelings regarding his Judaism have insidiously infected his marriage. His wife, Sylvia (Tara Fitzgerald), obsessed with newspaper accounts of the abuse of the Jews in Hitler's Germany, has succumbed to a mysterious form of paralysis and can no longer move her legs. The couple's doctor (Stanley Townsend) believes her condition is psychological and attempts to unpick the reasons behind her collapse.
The level of Philip's anxiety, both about his racial identity and the impact it has had on his relationship with his wife, only slowly float to the surface. They have not has sex since the birth of their son some 20 years ago and Sylvia has been left feeling frozen and unwanted.
Sher is seal-sleek and buttoned up in his black suit, a meticulous man who prides himself on being the only Jew employed by his firm. It's an impressive performance on a number of levels. His movements are precise and there is something clenched and contained about the way he holds his body; despite a superficial air of composure, it is clear that his ambivalence towards his identity as a Jewish man is eating away at him from the inside.
Philip admits to feeling both a sense of loathing and a strange connection towards the old country Jews he sees in the street, but seems unable to process such strong and complex feelings; when he believes his employer is accusing him of conspiring with another Jewish businessman he becomes apoplectic.
Fitzgerald makes it clear that some part of Sylvia almost relishes her predicament and there's a chill to her performance that makes her a difficult character with which to sympathize. Townsend plays Dr. Hymen as Philip's antithesis, a charismatic and sensual man who shares a strong sexual link with his shiksa wife and is comfortable with his cultural identity in a way Philip will never be. Indeed, the actor's presence brings some much needed warmth to the production.
Miller's play also explores what was, in the 1930s, the infant art of psychoanalysis, but the writing remains more convincing in its depiction of Gellburg's identity crisis. The second half of the play sees Miller circling the same thematic areas as events build towards their rather shrill conclusion.