ARTS

Death of a Salesman Antony Sher (Willy Loman, left) and Alex Hassell (Biff). Photo: Ellie Kurttz

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.

Death of a Salesman Antony Sher (Willy Loman) and Harriet Walter (Linda Loman). Photo: Ellie Kurttz
For the first time in a production of Salesman you actually sympathise with the kindly, long-suffering neighbour Charley, who has to endure Willy's tantrums and whose final act of kindness (a job offer) gets rebuffed out of vanity. This Willy never listens or learns, shuts everyone up (especially Linda) and deludes himself about his situation and that of his sons. He has crushed their spirits with the weight of his expectations. This is perfectly illuminated in a moment when Willy boasts of Biff that "He has a greatness in him, you know" while we see Biff's haunted face as he overhears it all from an adjacent room. Harriet Walter's Linda, too, is no saintly doormat but a rather fiercely loyal woman, valiantly trying to hold it all together. All this makes her great "Attention must be paid" speech to the feckless sons and her final oration at his graveside, all the more emotionally wrenching.

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.


Tickets: www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/death-of-a-salesman

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