The Theatreguide.London Reviews
Death Of A Salesman Archive
archive we file reviews of several past productions of Arthur Miller's
Death Of A Salesman together. Scroll down for the one you want, or
Lyric Theatre Spring-Summer 2005
What may be the greatest of American plays, and is surely the most American of great plays is revived in an admirable and well worth seeing, if ultimately less than perfect production.
Arthur Miller's play is one vision of the archetypal American, a little man who totally believes in the American dream of ready prosperity and success and who has lived a life of denial because he simply cannot imagine the possibility of failure.
It may have had a special resonance for the postwar generation who were facing an era of seemingly unlimited prosperity with secret trepidation. But it still works more than a half-century later as a moving reminder of how devastating - and, for some, impossible - it can be to come face-to-face with yourself.
Brian Dennehy, a familiar character actor from dozens of American films, has returned to the stage in recent years to take on some of the most daunting roles in the American repertoire. He first played Willy Loman in Chicago in 1998, taking the production to Broadway the next year. Now he and Chicago director Robert Falls come to London, with a predominantly British supporting cast.
In Chicago seven years ago Dennehy's performance was very powerful, capturing the desperation of a man weighted down by physical and psychological burdens, and simply unable to marshal the resources to face the play's traumas. He has softened and mellowed the performance somewhat for this production, and not always to the play's benefit.
While individual moments are unbearably poignant, others seem oddly dispassionate. The opening scene, when this aging travelling salesman returns home exhausted, works; the scene in which his young boss fires him doesn't. His encounter with Bernard, the nerdy kid next door who has grown into a successful lawyer, is very moving; the restaurant scene with his sons somehow doesn't come alive.
Dennehy's biggest failing - and I hasten to say it doesn't spoil the play, but just keeps it from total success - is in conveying a sense of Willy's emotional arc, the process of his gradual falling to pieces as his resistance to the truth of his own irrelevance weakens. Dennehy shows us isolated moments in the process, not the whole journey.
And yet the fact that Willy's psychological and emotional journey does not totally dominate the play has surprising and enlightening positive effects, in bringing the secondary characters more into the light. Certainly Clare Higgins as Willy's long-suffering but unconditionally loving wife gives the finest performance in that role I've ever seen.
She gives her character and her scenes an absolute reality, and is virtually the only one on the stage who never slips into the trap of just reciting famous lines, even when she's speaking some of the most famous lines in all of American drama. Indeed, her 'Attention must be paid to such a man' speech is unquestionably the play's emotional high point.
As Biff, the son on whom Willy has poured all his dreams of success, and who comes at last to realize he not only can't achieve it but doesn't want it, Douglas Henshall triumphs over the single worst attempt at an American accent I have ever heard from a British actor (and that's saying a lot) to make his emotional journey clearer and ultimately more moving than Willy's.
By their final confrontation scene you will be so caught up in Biff's pain that you will hardly notice that he is making vowel sounds that have never come forth from any real human being.
Howard Witt gives solid support as the loving neighbour Charley, and Mark Bazeley does more than most have been able to with the badly-underwritten role of Willy's second son.
Special mention must be given to Mark Wendland's set design, a particularly ugly and impractical combination of a unit shell and multiple revolves that forces key scenes into clumsily and unrealistically cramped spaces and never gives a clear sense of the geography of the Loman home.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-On-Avon Spring 2015; Noel Coward Theatre Summer 2015
I'm not as quick as some to declare Arthur Miller's drama the greatest of American Plays, but it certainly is the most American of great plays.
Its subject is the American Dream, the deeply-ingrained cultural promise that success is available to all – or, rather, what happens when that promise isn't fulfilled. Because, as Miller sees, for those who truly believe the promise there can be only one explanation for lack of success – that they, individually, aren't good enough.
Death Of A Salesman is about the enormous cost of both facing and denying that conclusion when the alternative explanation, that the promise is a lie, is simply impossible to imagine.
It is also about family, as all American plays ultimately are, and about how personal interactions within a family reflect and affect external forces working on it.
Willy Loman, as the world knows, is an ageing and hard-working salesman who never was much of a success but always had to believe that he was (or was right at the edge of becoming).
As he reaches the end of his working life he has to devote so much psychic energy to denial of failure that he can't see the real accomplishments of his life (loyal friend, loving family) or face the effects of his total commitment to the dream, notably its differing but equally crippling effects on his sons.
Miller's mode for dramatising this is to take us into Willy's head as his mental and physical exhaustion makes him unable to control a drifting among reality, memory and fantasy.
Director Gregory Doran and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis make effective use of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's new thrust stage and its ability to suggest Noplace and Anyplace to take us smoothly between the play's reality levels so that we always know where and when we are, even if Willy doesn't.
As Willy Loman Antony Sher gives essentially the same performance he offered in Miller's Broken Glass a few seasons back, of a little and very ordinary man out of his depth, confused by being out of his depth, and angry at being confused.
He movingly captures Willy's desperate struggle to avoid facing the frightening demon of his own failure, which is the core of the character.
He's less successful, though, in communicating the near-total mental and physical exhaustion of the man, and he doesn't distinguish sufficiently between the older Willy and the younger man of the flashbacks.
Alex Hassell as Biff and Sam Marks as Happy take a while to get going – you can almost spot the exact moment in their first scene when they stop just reciting lines and find the characters – but from then on are fully real and alive.
Where Willy fights to keep his faith in the dream alive, Biff struggles to escape it and accept reality, and Hassell makes us feel not just his difficulty but its importance.
And Harriet Walter, in what may be the performance of her life, invests wife/mother Linda with all the strength, wisdom and quiet suffering of one who sees and understands all but whose one obligation is to love with unswerving loyalty.
If in the course of the run Antony Sher finds that one extra spark to take his Willy Loman from excellent to great, this will be a Salesman for the ages.
Of A Salesman
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2019; Piccadilly Theatre Autumn-Winter 2019
It was just a few days ago
that I called another show the best dramatic production of the year. How
delightful it is to correct myself so quickly!
Coming out of this exciting
Young Vic production of Arthur Miller's classic, a friend commented 'Great
plays, like great paintings, can be seen again and again.' To which I
replied 'Yes, as long as you see something new in them each time.'
Directors Marianne Elliott
and Miranda Cromwell, along with a uniformly brilliant cast, illuminate
Death Of A Salesman in ways that make me understand it more clearly and
feel it more deeply than any of the several productions I've seen before.
(Does anyone need a summary?
A hard-working but never really successful salesman nears the end of his
life, weighed down by the burden of denying his failure and of sustaining
his hope for his equally unsuccessful and equally confused son.)
I call myself a 'recovering
academic' and I've taught and written about this play, underlining its
themes of ambition, self-delusion and the failures of the American Dream.
But it took this production
to remind me that what it is really all about, much like King Lear (which
I realise for the first time it resembles) is the raw reality of an old
man in pain.
Miller's equally great
contemporary Tennessee Williams famously used as an epigraph to one of his
plays the Dylan Thomas poem about not going gentle into that good night.
But I kept thinking as I watched Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman that the
Thomas poem really applied more to this play.
Growing old, running out of
energy, finding it ever more difficult to maintain his illusions of
success and sustain he denial of failure. Pierce's Willy vaguely senses
that (in the play's language) 'a terrible thing is happening to him' and,
however ineffectually, he rages against the dying of the light.
Other actors and directors
have taken Willy's exhaustion or his confusion or his fantasies as the
keynote of the character. But by letting Willy's free-swinging rage
dominate his performance, Wendell Pierce brings us into the man's
emotional experience more overpoweringly and justifies Arthur Miller's
repeated assertion that a small man's story can be a tragedy.
Wendell Pierce's performance,
however powerful, doesn't exist in a vacuum, and he is surrounded by other
characterisations that enrich and help re-invent the play.
haron D. Clarke is the
strongest, most rock-solid Linda I've ever seen. Other actresses playing
this potentially thankless role of supportive wife have won us over with
the dedication or pathos of the woman. But Clarke's Linda is a strong and
forceful woman, supportive because she chooses to be, not because there is
nothing more than loyalty in her.
The 'Attention must be paid'
scene in which she berates her two adult sons for their lack of respect
and sympathy for their father almost steals the show through the power of
personality, determination and moral righteousness Clarke brings to it.
The fact that the Loman
family and a few other characters are played by black actors is not
African-American culture is
built largely on the pattern of strong women supporting their men and
holding the family unit together, and you sense Clarke's Linda drawing on
that admirable heritage.
Race also helps us understand
the two adult sons played by Arinza Kene and Martins Imhangbe. The young
urban black men of their generation learned quickly to strut and swagger,
and the subtle body language of both actors shows the men in their
thirties desperately trying to retain that swagger while being beaten down
Kene's Biff is more stooped
over by the burden of denial than his father, and must struggle harder
just to stand upright, while Imhangbe makes Happy almost manic in his
constant fight to appear upbeat and worthy of his name.
The play's mode wanders in
and out of reality, memory and illusion, and several production elements
nicely guide us through the fluid meandering.
Like many previous designers
Anna Fleischle divides the stage into several distinct but essentially
bare spaces, but unlike most she doesn't lock them into place – i.e. this
is always the kitchen, this the fantasy place, etc.
Instead, the locations follow
Willy around. If he is functioning in reality in this spot, it is the
kitchen; if another scene finds him mentally present over there, where he
is becomes the kitchen, and so on.
More than any other staging,
we see that Willy's mental state defines reality, rather than the actor
having to move physically from arbitrarily defined 'real' space to
'memory' space to 'illusion' space.
And the memory scenes are
punctuated by sudden freezes accompanied by a clicking sound, suggesting
that they are generated by leafing through old photos, with the spaces in
between perhaps the unreliable reportage of how Willy chooses to remember
Opening and closing the play
with the cast quietly singing an African-American spiritual might seem
like unnecessary lily-gilding. But it works, both guiding us into the
racial casting and setting a thoroughly appropriate and moving elegiac
Death Of A Salesman might be the greatest of American plays and is certainly the most American of great plays. This exciting, innovative and sensitive production shows it to be an almost overpowering human drama and tragedy.
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