Death of a Salesman (RSC at the Noël Coward Theatre)

It is Arthur Miller’s centenary year, and as one of the foremost 20th century playwrights it seems fitting that several productions of his plays have recently been staged within the UK – last year’s The Crucible at the Young Vic, All My Sons at Richmond, the recent West End visit of A View From The Bridge, and now this one, perhaps his best known work, a look at the flipside of the American Dream.

salesman

Willy Loman is a sixty-three year old salesman who works out in New England, driving hundreds of miles a week to flog goods to an increasingly tough crowd of buyers, who no longer know or respect him.  His boss, Howard, is a whizz-kid obsessed with technology and profits, and not swayed by the bonds of friendship which had been extended to his staff by his father, Frank.

At home, Willy’s wife Linda is increasingly desperate and sad to see his rambling shuffling at night, his frequent car accidents (passed off by tiredness, inattention (‘imagine all my life on the road and looking at scenery’), and poor eyesight), and his talking to himself while in dreams of a past that might not have existed.  Their sons, Biff and Happy, are thirty-something and still living at home, having made little of themselves.  Biff, as we see in flashbacks, had been an active sportsman during school, expected to succeed far beyond his puny and weedy swot friend Bernard.  Happy is always trying to get his parents’ attention (‘I’m losing weight, have you noticed?’), but their neglect of their second child has led him to become a shallow narcissist who uses woman and has no thoughts for anyone but himself.

Next-door, family friend Charley (and father of Bernard) is a success in business, and once Willy loses salary and is put on commission, gives him fifty dollars a week so he doesn’t lose face at home, despite Linda being clearly aware of what is going on.  We see Willy’s bluster and confidence over the years erode into a quiet depression which builds and eventually blows up in an intense second half when he finally sees that Biff is not the man he wants him to be, and that his own dream of success – represented by his ghostly brother Ben (‘when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, when I was twenty-one I walked out, and by God I was rich!’).

In the role of Willy Loman, Antony Sher puts in a huge and pitiful performance as everything continues to stack up against him, whether he is begging for money to pay his insurance from a boss who has past caring, flashing back to an affair with a greedy woman who takes the packs of stockings meant for Linda (who has to sit and home and mend and darn her own threadbare items), or motivating his boys to be materialistic and thoughtless while failing to recognise the true qualities of success and friendship.

Willy is a man who has lost his way.  At first, we might find his plight amusing, a man who mutters about progress and wonders about cheese in a can.  Soon, though, and thanks to an affecting performance from Harriet Walter as the ever-concerned Linda, we see the grip of mental illness taking its toll on this man who once had a dream to walk into every buyer’s office and be ‘liked’.  Alex Hassall, last seen as Prince Hal to Sher’s Falstaff (a different father-son dynamic) in the Barbican production of Henry IV, is excellent as the wild-eyed, increasingly unhinged Biff, whose dream of cattle ranches overshadows his limitations in business and as a man.  As Happy, Sam Marks (who had played Poins in that Henry IV), stands on the sidelines, almost a mute observer in this tragedy.  He is as much a sham as everything else around him.

A powerful play in a tower of strength from the whole cast, this is yet another production to showcase theatre’s top power couple, Sher and his spouse Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director and helmsman of tonight’s play.  We await their next collaboration on King Lear in 2016 with great interest.  Incidentally, another couple appear in the cast – Walter and her husband Guy Paul, who is rather excellent as the white-suited Ben, almost the voice of the devil in human form.  Willy always wished he had followed his brother to Alaska, but we have no idea whether or not this would have been wise.

Several scenes work well in a claustrophobic set of lighted tenement apartments surrounding the Loman house (paid for at the close of the play, described by Linda as their being ‘free and clear’).  The first flashback shows a carefree Willy playing ball with his sons, with Biff getting all the adultation.  Later, we switch to his advising his son back in the present on how to approach an old colleague for a loan (‘if something falls off his desk, don’t you pick it up, they have office boys for that’), mirrored by his own painful meeting with Howard where, when something does fall, Willy bends to retrieve it.  The discussions with Ben, whether in the past (where Linda dissuades him from leaving), or in the present, where the spectre of his brother interrupts a card game with Charley, are well-done, and the restaurant sequence where father and son rail at each other, culminating in Biff and Happy leaving with the girls they have just picked up (Happy to the waiter: ‘He’s not my dad, he’s just some guy’) is emotionally devastating.

The final coda, after the death of the title, sees no one coming to the funeral beyond family and Charley with his son.  Willy Loman, for all his dreams, has been forgotten, and life moves on.  Happy might declare his father has ‘not died in vain’, but we don’t see how he can make a difference, and Charley’s contempt of the sons who might have eased their father’s final troubled days speaks volumes.

With Joshua Richards as Charley, Tobias Beer as Howard, Brodie Ross as a sympathetic Bernard, who has grown to become a man of the law, Sarah Parks as The Woman, as Ross Green as the typically cheery waiter, Stanley.

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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