Written by Arthur MillerDirected by Greg Doran
Harriet Walter and Antony SherTo read my interview with Harriet Walter and her analysis of the role of Linda, click here
Death Of A Salesman not only marks the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth, but in Greg Doran’s production being staged over Shakespeare’s April birthday, is also the RSC’s jewel in its 2015 crown.
Widely acclaimed as the greatest American play, we witness a meticulous dissection of the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life. His sales are flagging, buyers won’t see him anymore and he has been reduced to “commission only” by his young and ruthless boss Howard, a man who (in one of many moments of Miller’s cruel perception) Willy has watched grow up from boyhood to inherit his family's business. The mounting finance bills on car (and hellishly, even the refrigerator) remind us of the domestic pressures that Antony Sher's Willy can never escape.
As guilt and failure take their toll on Loman, we see early on how wise his wife (Harriet Walter's Linda) is to his confusion. “Your mind is overactive, and the mind is what counts, dear.” But she is being kind. As act one unfolds, Harriet Walter delivers one of the most devastating female performances, telling sons Biff and Happy that not only is she fully aware of Willy’s suicidal depression, but that she cannot let him know that she knows, for such a revelation would destroy him. Linda’s strength as a wife and mother, desperate to glue her family together is a recognisable pain and as Walter spoke, the sobbing around the auditorium was profound.
Miller is merciless as he twists the knife into Loman’s last desperate hours. As Biff again disappoints him, the true depths of Willy’s guilt and shame are revealed, whilst Happy (Sam Marks convincing as the shallow even if ultimately loving son, too easily led by his trousers) is happy to desert his desolate father in a restaurant, as he heads off in pursuit of women.
Loman’s descent will be recognised by all and quite possibly be familiar to many and yet along the way he encounters everyday kindnesses too. Linda’s love for her husband breaks our hearts, whilst Charley (a beautifully weighted performance from the lugubrious Joshua Richards) provides one of the most touching definitions of friendship ever penned. In the play’s Requiem, Charley’s eulogy echoes Horatio's "now cracks a noble heart" speech from Hamlet, as the old New Yorker says of Willy:
”He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished.”
Nowhere else in the canon has the so-called “American dream” been so concisely revealed as the nightmare that it can so easily become.
Besides the faultless text, it is Doran’s company that mark this production as one of the greats. Sat at his kitchen table, the shoe-shining Sher defines Miller’s anti-hero for a new generation and as his mind unravels, Sher’s Loman is as brilliantly desperate as he is pitiful.
In a pairing that has seen Alex Hassell play Hal to Sher’s Falstaff, so is the younger man now Biff. Magnificent throughout, it is late into act two when Hassell, with minimal dialogue and outstanding acting, portrays a young man watching the rock that he had previously believed his father to be, crumble before his eyes. Watching the equal despair of the humiliated father and his devastated son, both now destroyed, is almost unbearable.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ powerfully overbearing set depicts a tenemented Brooklyn, the Lomans’ home, where nothing grows anymore – and as Miller has the play’s action flash between the years, so too does the staging mirror Loman’s muddled mind. Credit also to Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Paul Englishby’s music, both perfectly enhancing time and place.
In 1979 Miller described Warren Mitchell in Mitchel Rudman’s National Theatre production, as “definitive”. I saw the NT show more than once and Greg Doran’s version shares that pantheon.
A tragedy that is timeless and epic and yet also everyman, Death Of A Salesman plays at Stratford, before an immediate transfer to London. The production is unmissable. Drama does not come better than this.
Plays at Stratford until 2nd May 2015. Then plays at the Noel Coward Theatre from 9th May until 18th July 2015