As the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth is celebrated this year, attention certainly is being paid by London theatre, with A View From the Bridge at The Young Vic earlier this year and The Crucible at The Old Vic last year, to rave reviews and Olivier Award nominations and wins. Death of a Salesman then, is striking while the Miller iron is hot. Whilst a potentially unconventional choice for the RSC to be opening their season that celebrates Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Death of a Salesman is arguably even more poignant today than it has ever been, and provides a tragedy worthy of the bard himself. Following a sell-out run and rave reviews in Stratford, Gregory Dornan’s much anticipated production of Death of a Salesman comes to London’s West End; one only has to walk through London for a moment to be greeted with advertisements for the hot ticket this spring. With the recent election, and in a climate of wide dissatisfaction, mass unemployment, rising inner city house prices, cuts to pay and public services, and increasing fears for the future, Miller’s masterful documentation of the harsh reality behind the American Dream has never felt more relevant; replace the boss’s voice recording gadget with the new iWatch and you could be in the modern city.
Upon entering the theatre, the low rumble of the city and trains can be heard, and on the stage high-rise buildings loom in on the little house, setting the scene for the claustrophobia of the characters’ lives and minds, who are crushed by the demands of the city they inhabit. The first that we meet is Willy Loman (played by Anthony Sher), a tired and disillusioned man of 63, who desperately tries to keep up morale within his family with the assertions that big things are coming for them. Often lively and vigorous when he sees hope for the future or finds himself caught in the past, and at other times confused and exhausted when the sheer weight of his ‘fakery’ takes hold, Sher gives a heart-wrenching performance that is at all times both brilliant and pitiable. His two ungrateful sons, Biff and Hap (played by Alex Hassell and Sam Marks), are instantly charming and charismatic, both moving seamlessly between childhood and adulthood as the play shifts between past and present. Hassell’s horror at finding his father with a mistress in Boston is emotionally driven and the repercussions of this moment are carried by his character throughout the play, whilst Marks’s cold and unemotional Hap, who chooses women over family, is the perfect mix of callousness and appeal, and between them they create two boys who are equally unwilling and unequipped to aid their father as he unravels.
Performing together in plays, such as Henry IV last year, has clearly brought a chemistry and rapport between these three leads that results in a powerful family dynamic. This is completed by Harriet Walter’s sublime performance of the mother, Linda, who is desperately trying to save her husband from descending into despair. Walter offers an indulgent and caring wife, where Linda is often played as downtrodden and pitiable, and her unexpected resilience adds to the hopelessness of Sher’s Willy Loman. She is a strong matriarch, but like all of the characters, she too clings on to a dream, not of money, legacy, or success, but happiness and peace. Whilst a purer dream, this turns out to be even more intangible than anything the other characters come up with. Whilst sensational performances all round, it is Harriet Walter who steals the show throughout the production, and her final speech left the audience in a standing ovation, and not a dry eye to be found in the theatre.
A play that is constantly travelling through time and space is difficult to stage with clarity, but as they move from past to present, from the dark and sparse private home to the colourful and busy public city, the lighting, music, costumes, and staging ensure a seamlessness to every scene. A particularly remarkable transition came from Brodie Ross as Bernard, the ‘geeky’ child turned successful lawyer, whose final scene has him about to appear before the Supreme Court. As a character he symbolises the American Dream and all that Willy has struggled to achieve, for both himself and his children. As Willy mourns the ‘good old days’ gone by, the realities of his failure to succeed catch up with him, as he has torn apart his family with his obsession for happy lies over less happy truths, and his sanity becomes increasingly questionable. The constantly repeated ‘How did you do it?’ to his successful, and dead, brother Ben and to his kind benefactor Charley, adds to the sense of a man who has never had a clear grasp on reality or who he really is behind his stories of success.
A tale of people and relationships, of capitalism and corruption, greed and generosity, and of what it really means to have success, this play is a comment on every society that has and will ever be, as we see that humanity really doesn’t change from era to the next.
I have no doubt that in another hundred years another theatre critic will be sitting in my seat, and marvelling at Miller’s masterpiece again.
Review by Breeze Barrington
Death of a Salesman
Noel Coward Theatre
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.00pm
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Show Opened: 9th May 2015
Booking Until: 18th July 2015
Important Info:Special Performances
26th June 7.30pm – Audio Described Performance
10th July 7.30pm – Captioned Performance
Tuesday 12th May 2015