Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller
RSC at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire CV37 6BB until May 2, then Noël Coward Theatre, London from May 9 to July 18, 2015
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell. March 19, 2015
The RSC has hit gold dust with this powerful revival of Arthur Miller's compassionate portrait of the deeply flawed dreamer Willy Loman.
This production, by RSC supremo Gregory Doran, will long be remembered for two remarkable central performances, Antony Sher as Willy and Harriet Walter as his stoic wife, Linda. It will be a real surprise if it doesn't transfer to London and beyond. [It did, announced shortly after our review.]
Surprisingly, according to a New York Times interview, Doran is new to the text, not having seen previous stage or film versions. It has paid dividends though, as his fresh approach has altered the focus somewhat, moving it away from the central message about the collateral damage of capitalism, to giving us instead an intimate portrait of a family, albeit one debased by an American Dream gone sour. From his first entrance, when he wearily trudges across the stage dragging two suitcases of samples, Sher presents us with a little old man crushed by life. Cruelly cut down by his cocky young employer to a commission-only basis, after 34 years of loyal service, he's drifting in and out of a dream world and slowly falling apart. But Sher's achievement is not to present us with a tragic hero but rather a tetchy, irritating, old man, albeit one trying his damnedest.
Stephen Brimson-Lewis' set pays respect to the text but is not stymied by it. Miller's precise stage directions had replicated those used in Elia Kazan's original production. Here the cramped two-level house remains in the background while other settings are lifted in downstage. The house, like its mortgage payments, is ever present and encroaching on it are the new high rises, which Willy bemoans. A world literally crushing down on him.
The supporting roles are perfectly cast. Alex Hassell (who was Prince Hal to Sher's Falstaff last year) personifies the boyish, athletic swagger of the restless Biff while Sam Marks has all the Attitude for the careless philanderer, Happy. Joshua Richards is perfectly laconic as the ever-patient Charley and Sarah Parks brings a maturity to the part of the mistress, again a welcome departure for this role. Doran's careful attention to detail draws out some beautifully painful ironies - Willy supplying his mistress with new silk stockings, actually intended for Linda, while she is at home eternally stitching her own.
The play's revolutionary interplay of past and present in the same "strata" (as Miller put it), which was then revolutionary, remains as powerful as ever. It underlines how for all of us, the past is always with us, no matter how hard we might try to deny it.