[Editor’s note:] As Death of a Salesman moves into the West End, Johnny Fox dusts off a note he wrote to the powers-that-be at the time of its initial opening in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Dear RSC: I’d like to return this Death of a Salesman. It just doesn’t fit.
Apart from its unravelling from not being a Shakespeare play in your theatres over the 23 April ‘birthday weekend’ for the first time, the ‘perfect match’ between Willy Loman and tragic heroes like Coriolanus or Lear wasn’t knit together any better than your thread that this is the sort of production the RSC could do significantly better than a commercial producer – even if you did spunk your subsidy on superfluous live musicians.
Gregory Doran’s production focuses on delusion and dementia, not a fall from monarchical power. If Willy Loman is anyone else from drama, he’s Amanda Wingfield: Arthur Miller clearly being influenced by O’Neill’s four-years-earlier The Glass Menagerie. It struck me forcibly that not only are Willy’s glowing memories of his personal popularity and huge commission payouts as fantastical as Amanda’s ‘gentleman callers’ and cotillion past, but how much more compelling and subtle was Zachary Quinto as her son Tom in the 2013 Broadway production than Alex Hassell‘s nasty, over-physical, hair-trigger Biff.
The plot has more holes than the stockings Linda constantly mends to save money. If Willy is pushing retirement in 1949, his career transited the Depression when people learned to plan for hard times, so why does he have no savings or pension? The boys are in their late twenties so how did they avoid the draft during WW2, why in the post-war boom doesn’t Linda herself find work, and why after humiliating himself begging young boss Howard for a job, is Willy then immediately too proud to accept old friend Charlie’s offer of one?
We may underestimate the total buy-in to the American Dream and the credo that even without qualifications or capital, anyone can make it big and that any effort expended on making it small-time is wasted. No-one believes this more than Willy Loman despite being shat upon at every turn. As Steinbeck said, ‘socialism never took root in America because the poor there see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but temporarily embarrassed millionaires’.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set brilliantly captures the overbuilt tenements of Brooklyn which ‘dissolve’ in flashback scenes when the house stood alone, but it’s positioned too far from the audience with the forestage reserved for the occasional dashing parade of New York characters rising from the subway or chasing through the streets as though Doran really wanted to direct ‘Guys and Dolls’.
Harriet Walter’s worn, brave and meticulously-detailed Linda is very fine and transcends the production, but Antony Sher’s Loman is too consistently a small angry pedant isolated from affection or charm. You question how anyone could ever have bought anything he was selling and long for a taller, more charismatic performance which might hint at the tragedy of a fallen titan.
What a pity Kevin Spacey didn’t make this his swansong at the Old Vic.
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