THE Royal Lyceum Theatre's rehearsal room is a big, airy space, but this afternoon it is looking unusually cluttered. Standing in the middle of it is a wardrobe, with a model ship perched on top; beside it, on the floor, a harp next to a wind-up gramophone player. Among the other bits and pieces is a small rocking horse. Sitting on the sidelines, director John Dove looks dreamily on. "It's a masterpiece," he says. "You would never miss a chance to work on a thing like this in
• Director John Dove. Picture: Complimentary
He is talking about The Price, Arthur Miller's powerful 1968 drama, which is set in the attic of a New York brownstone, amid the clutter of a dead man's life. In a day or two, all this paraphernalia – and a good deal more besides – will be moving over the road to the Lyceum's stage, so Dove's four-strong company can enact the story of two estranged brothers trying to make sense of the loss of their father. One of them, Victor, has dedicated years to caring for the old man, a victim of the Wall Street crash of 1929. The other, Walter, has pursued his career as a doctor with a different kind of single-mindedness. With typical Miller thorniness, the play teases the audience about which course of action was best.
To have Dove back in the Edinburgh theatre is good news. This is his fourth Arthur Miller play here and his track record is exemplary. He came first – at the invitation of artistic director Mark Thomson, who had worked with him at Hampstead Theatre – with a production of Death of a Salesman in 2004. The show had a fierce emotional momentum, the 11-strong cast was flawless and Paul Jesson's fantastic turn as Willy Loman earned him a nomination for best actor in the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland.
In 2007 – after an admirable staging of Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Dove was back with that other Miller classic, All My Sons. His superb production tuned in to the timely theme of big business profiting from war, but hit home most profoundly because of its emotional plea for social responsibility. Then, last year, he proved he could be just as persuasive with The Man Who Had All The Luck, an early Miller play whose classic status is far from assured (it lasted three days on Broadway) and yet here came across as compelling, funny and brimming with ideas.
"Miller puts people – whether they are intelligent or not intelligent – in a situation which is such a shock that they are robbed of intelligence," says Dove. "That's when an audience will get interested. The most interesting moment to see a human being is when they don't know what to do, because we all have that in life. Arthur is massively compassionate about people who have lost the map."
The pairing of Dove and Miller seems such a good match that it is surprising their relationship began as recently as Death of a Salesman. Perhaps it is modesty, but the director attributes much of the success, not to his own skills, but to the people of Edinburgh who, for whatever reason, seem to embrace Miller with particular enthusiasm. "With Death of a Salesman, I got a real feeling that the audience loved the heart of it," he says. "That relationship between Arthur and the Edinburgh audience is so fulfilling that we kept getting tempted to come back with another one. We seemed to get the same response from the Edinburgh people each time. It speaks to them. You can't necessarily say why. I was there when one of Arthur's plays went on at Hampstead and the relationship had no real feeling. It wasn't a reflection on the production; it's something in the air."
Miller, who died in 2005, is not exactly short of admirers elsewhere, but if Dove is right, it will be fascinating to see what nerves The Price strikes in a city so deeply affected by the banking crisis. The play's dead father, Gregory Solomon, was a victim of the financial system he hoped to profit by, a system that was part of the go-getting American Dream. Does such a man deserve our sympathy or contempt?
It is a question we could ask of today's financiers. "All of that is there," says Dove. "Walter says, 'So why did he need looking after? There's how many million people – they've all gone bust – why couldn't he go on welfare?' All the issues of today come out. Of course, it's the American Dream crashing, but our dream did, too, last year. Should we be supporting our dads if their pension has lost its value? Where's the responsibility? Arthur really brings both sides out."
If that theme does strike a chord, it will be down to the audience, not the production. Dove feels it is his job not to underscore the topical resonances, as if winking to the audience, but almost to disappear into the work, allowing its archetypal dramatic forces to work on us unencumbered. "You've got to have a clear idea, but keep it very simple and keep your head down," he says.
The director divides his career between new plays and classics. On the one hand, he has specialised in premires, spending 13 years working with living playwrights at Hampstead Theatre and now teaming up with Howard Brenton for a play about the making of the King James Bible. On the other, he has focused on the greats, such as a Measure for Measure he did with Mark Rylance at the Globe Theatre, on Broadway and also in Broadmoor. "With the giants, they find the simple in humanity, and at that point everybody turns round and looks," he says. "When we took Measure for Measure to Broadmoor, we had a man playing a woman trying to argue for her brother's life. There were three women inmates with three guards around each one and they were all following it. I couldn't believe this writer had hooked those women with a man playing a woman four centuries later."
The secret of his success with Miller, he suggests, is his determination to make every action seem unpremeditated. The playwright can come across as mechanistic if the characters appear to be mouthpieces of a particular ideological line. The way to avoid that, says Dove, is for the actors to lead with the heart and not the head.
"When they're playing every line as though they've no idea what's going to happen next, you don't get a feeling of Miller controlling at all," says Dove, who hopes one day to stage Miller's A View From the Bridge. "It has to come off the top of the head. You've got to get rid of intellect. The lines have got to be spontaneous, otherwise it will sound like a ploy by the author. If you hit it right and the actors have backed off, it's almost as if Miller is talking with the audience. Life becomes really possible when people are being surprised, either as writers or actors or the relationship between the writer and the audience. If there's surprise in the air, everything is possible."
• The Price is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from tonight until 13 February.