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Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller
Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
(2010)

Production photo

Death of a Salesman is, said Miller, '...a love affair between a father and a son and between them both and America.' And you have to admire his economy! It is certainly one of the greatest plays ever written. Millions of words are written and will be written about it. Try to look beneath the surface as it grips and unfolds in front of you, try to get a measure of its metaphoric 20th Century America, and the depth and intricacy are dizzying. It is this depth that gives an everyday story of self-deceit, broken lives and dysfunctional family affairs the potential to become such a powerful, heartbreaking theatrical experience. With the right production. And this is the right production! This is a magnificent production!

Willy Loman is coming to the end of his days as a travelling salesman (a being who relies on 'a smile and a shoe-shine'). He faces the hard, grazing wall of reality after a lifetime of fuelling himself on illusions. And as the illusions become untenable, he enters a delusional and hallucinatory psychotic state. His fragmented past becomes at one with his tormented present. The theatrical realisation of this process, in the hands of Miller, is awe inspiring. It's a long, swirling, revelatory decent to the grave. It hurts everyone who sees it. It's a work of genius.

I approached this production without high hopes, but pleased to think I would see a staging of a masterwork. Phillip Jackson's astonishing embodiment of Loman had me by the throat in minutes. Even before I had acknowledged that, yes, the accent was working, working well, I was taken by the body language. How does he do it? Jackson had become an American: of course wardrobe helps, and knowledge of the play and so on... but there is acting magic going on. Jackson has created a fully believable, human Loman. Then, of course, he has the brilliant structure and text to play with.... The result is, without doubt, the best of the four productions of this play that I've seen. And certainly one of the best productions of any play we've seen at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

So, I would recommend this production Death of a Salesman for Phillip Jackson's performance alone, even if all else was dross. But it ain't. Sarah Esdaile's direction is tight and unobtrusive. Miller calls for seamless segues between scenes, some of which overlap. Esdaile has risen to the demands, creating eruptions of emotion that sweep our attention across the huge stage, and over the three levels of Francis O'Connors exquisitely functional set. This focus pulling device sometimes gives rise to an almost filmic directorial control. The performance is paced to perfection.

And the cast is flawless, forming a fraught, just off centre naturalistic human environment for Willy Loman's decent into hell and Phillip Jackson's performance of a lifetime. What more to say? A five star double plus production. Travel to see it!

Running until 29th May 201

Reviewer: Ray Brown