Bolton Library Theatre
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by David Thacker
This production of The Last Yankee feels like a particularly special opportunity to see a play by iconic American director Arthur Miller. Staged in a newly developed and very intimate theatre space, this is a chance to see Miller’s work directed by the man who has directed more of his plays than anyone else. David Thacker knew Miller personally and directed the 1993 British première of The Last Yankee as his last production at The Young Vic.
The play looks at how two men and their clinically depressed wives respond to time spent in a psychiatric hospital. The central theme is one of disappointment and how that can corrode our sense of self and our relationships with others. Miller himself had experience of being husband to a woman vulnerable to depressive episodes during his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. The play also uses much of Miller’s absorption with how the past informs the present.
The first act is a slow burn of social awkwardness and tentative male bonding as the very different husbands try to make sense of mental illness. Frick, a successful businessman and Hamilton, a carpenter descended from a founding father of American democracy find nothing that unites their wives. Rich/Poor. Kids/No kids. Lost optimism/Swedish lack of optimism. These men are lost without a premise to explain why their wives are psychiatric patients. Patrick Poletti as Frick and David Ricardo-Pearce as Hamilton are utterly convincing as two very different men both broken in their own ways by their attempts to cope with their wives’ mental illness.
The wives appear in the second act having formed their own connection. Karen is a first time patient and is discomobulated by the medication and terribly vulnerable in her desire to be accepted. Played with sweet desperation by Annie Tyson, she portrays a wife who imagines herself a disappointment to her husband having been cruelly rejected by her own mother. It is only through music and dance that she fully comes alive with childlike glee that her bewildered husband struggles to comprehend. The scenes where she performs are tender and filled with tentative hope from a woman who had “lost her optimism.”
Juliet Aubrey captivates as the frequent flier, savvy to the effects of all the medication. Although bewildered as to what, if anything is actually wrong with her, she dryly acknowledges that “Anybody with any sense would be depressed in this country.” Brittle and full of nervous twitching energy, she exudes charm. Still beautiful despite having seven children and feeling “a torn off rag of my old self” she is drug free for 21 days after 15 years. As her and her husband exchange truths about their life together, a picture appears of loss, potential never fully realised, disappointments and resentments. These moments on stage are there in so many relationships but highlight our human vulnerability to cope in a changing world that we may struggle to understand.
Stark staging creates a sterile environment for these fragile humans to come together and is a fitting backdrop to play out messy, confused emotions. A bed is always occupied by a third unmoving, possibly catatonic women who is a poignant reminder of just how cruel depression is. The Last Yankee is a deeply satisfying watch and Thacker’s rich understanding of Miller’s work ensures that this intimate staging works beautifully.
Images Joel Fiddes