Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller
Royal Shakespeare Company
Noël Coward Theatre

Alex Hassell (Biff), Harriet Walter (Linda Loman), Antony Sher (Willy Loman) and Sam Marks (Happy) Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Arthur Miller’s masterpiece cannot but resonate with the current climate full of uncertainties and threatened by a malevolent capitalism. Following its successful run in Stratford-upon-Avon and a rave review from Philip Fisher, Death of A Salesman opens its West-End run at the Noël Coward Theatre.

It is a fascinating story that questions, destroys and reifies a flawed and psychotic manhood. Death of a Salesman is one of the few plays that puts manhood under the microscope with an honesty that avoids self-indulgence. With the statistics saying that the male suicide rate is three times the female, this revival rings warning bells.

Linda Loman, played by the elegant and restrained Harriet Walter, has a stage presence by far greater than predicted in the script. Walter projects pride and dignity that makes her the real head of the family in the Loman household, albeit not recognised. This shows the likes of her husband and her two sons as a bit more pitiful and shallower than Miller might have intended.

Is it the men’s making that destroys them? Or is it down to a dehumanised society that their dreams are shattered or never conceived? Or maybe tragedy could have been averted, if Willy had conceded defeat—and had taken his friend Charlie’s job offer—and Biff had not thought about his father’s affair too seriously. It is, perhaps, a man-made world that is collapsing on itself.

Antony Sher’s interpretation of Willy has enough subtlety not to give us precise answers to these questions. After a slow start, Sher as a garrulous Willy grows in strength and intensity, especially after the interval. We all know of this small time salesman’s mistakes but we cannot but be moved by the gradual descent to his own demise. Sher goes back and forth the character’s past and present with ease and the mastery of the excellent actor he is. Other grounded performances are given by the smaller roles, Joshua Richards as Charley and Brodie Ross as Bernard.

Regrettably the same cannot be said for the two other main male roles, Biff (Alex Hassel) and Happy (Sam Marks). There is an artificiality and awkwardness in their performances, which becomes even more visible as they play the young versions of themselves. It is also unfortunate that they start off with unnatural American accents.

The set and sound have a movie set quality, with tromp d’oeil and illusions, the backdrop of apartment blocks ingeniously made of projections and lighting. The RSC production becomes, in a sense, evocative and nostalgic of a Brooklyn of the past and cannot go further than presenting a faithfully historical portrayal of the time.

Full of potential, it could have been a bit less literal and should have trusted more the universality of a script that is timeless.

Reviewer: Mary Mazzilli

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