In Arthur Miller’s 1968 play ‘The Price’, four people quarrel over the price of old furniture. Yes, that is essentially the drama’s synopsis. Four characters in a New York attic, debating the value of relics of the past piled up from floor to ceiling from ancient dining sets, chairs, wardrobes, old fencing equipment to an out-of-tune harp. But don’t be fooled, Jonathan Church’s 50th anniversary production of Miller’s play is far more than that. Despite a seemingly mundane plot, ‘The Price’, starring David Suchet and Brendan Coyle, is as absorbing as a thriller. Visually extravagant and deeply emotional, it tells a story about resentment, the cost of success and the difficulty of making peace with the past in a heavily materialistic world. As Arthur Miller put it himself: “The play is about people who make decisions in life and the price they pay for those decisions”.
The play’s storyline is deceptively simple. Victor Franz is a 50-something, utterly frustrated and bitterly disappointed policeman, trying to sell a houseful of old furniture piled up in an attic that was once his childhood home. Despite once being a promising scientist, he dropped out of college to look after his father ruined by the Great Depression. He sees neither meaning in the past nor hope for his remaining years. At the same time, he lacks not only the courage to retire, as this would force him to recognise his failure to generate anything worthwhile through his career, but also the will to start over. Victor resents his older, long-estranged brother Walter, who stayed in college and enjoys a career as a successful surgeon. Yet, even Walter can’t find meaning or significance behind his prosperity and fame. Over the course of an afternoon, duplicity and family secrets are revealed. Walter, Victor’s alcoholic wife Esther, and Gregory Solomon, the 89-year-old Lithuanian Jew and antique dealer hired to appraise their possessions, force the beat cop to face a painful and long-stifled question, namely the value, or ‘price’ of his sacrifice.
Both brothers are magnificently played. As Victor, Brendan Coyle - who you might recognise from Downton Abbey as John Bates - impersonated perfectly the weariness of a man forced to acknowledge his pointless and meaningful fate which he will never break away from. A frightening warning of how rapidly one might waste their life. Adrian Lukis also portrayed Walter perfectly by capturing his fears, unease and the guilt of having gotten away. The whole cast is undoubtedly exceptional, but it is truly David Suchet’s manipulative, versatile yet charming portrayal of Gregory Solomon who is the play’s icing on the cake. Although it is in fact a supporting role, Suchet’s glowing performance turned this comic and eccentric character into the star of the entire show. Suchet played to perfection a seemingly harmless 89-year-old with both extreme joie de vivre and incredible manipulation skills but also with a vulnerable and wise soul, revealing life’s absurdity. He was certainly missed in the second act, where he spent most of the time off stage.
Simon Higlett’s set design was a masterpiece with massive amounts of chairs, tables, armoires and mirrors stacked up on to the ceiling, giving the impression that all actors would be eventually swallowed up by the pile of old furniture. Sara Stewart, playing Victor’s alcoholic wife Esther, successfully conveyed the perilous atmosphere as well as the stuffy and discomfiting nature of sitting in a graveyard of objects, which, although once loved, are now, alas, worthless. “Time is a terrible thing”. This line by Gregory Salmon truly encapsulates the whole essence of the play and still resonates in my ears.
On the surface, ‘The Price’ is about how much the antique dealer will pay for the long-neglected pile of furniture. But beyond the obvious, ‘The Price’ is more about the price involved in self-sacrifice or the price we are willing to pay for our success and ambitions as well as the cost of dividing families. Although it is now 50 years old, the play’s message is more relevant than ever in our current throw-away society. ‘The Price’ compels us to reflect on the dichotomy of material wealth and affluence versus personal integrity, something which affects every one of us, yet something no one seems to care about. Finally, the play reminds us that while we are truly the authors of our lives, we must remember that there is always a cost attached to our decisions.