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Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
(2004)

At over fifty years old, Death of a Salesman's story about the faults and cracks in the American dream is still a terrifically relevant piece of work.

Paul Jesson plays Willy Loman, the down-and-out salesman whose life unravels over the course of the story. With Joanna Tope as Linda, his devoted wife, and Steven Duffy and Alex Hassell (Biff and Happy Loman), Jesson is able to ricochet through his lines, building into a frenzy from which the audience soon learns he cannot recover.

As eldest son Biff, Duffy is the immediate foil to Willy's increasing madness. The secrets that have been festering between father and son may not be voiced until well into the second act, but long before this the two actors manage to build a tense - and intense - relationship which we can believe in completely. Biff's presence on stage is dark and foreboding, and there's always a hint when Duffy is on stage that something just might explode.

This is in stark contrast to the aptly named Happy, whom Hassell plays with a seeming boundless energy that shifts as Happy grows older. In flashbacks, this energy is expressed through carefree cartwheels, but as he grows older, just as he accuses his brother of losing his confidence, he seems to have lost his ability to make these grand gestures and handsprings. Instead, he fidgets and lights cigarettes, focuses his energy on women, and tells his brother not to whistle in elevators.

But for a play that premiered in1949, one of the most surprising characters in is Linda. Linda may be a housewife, but Joanna Tope leaves no doubt in one's mind that over the years it's been Linda who's held the Loman family together. There's one scene, near the end of the first act, where Linda has it out with the sons who she considers to be ungrateful for everything their father provided for them - and while she spends most of this speech sitting at the kitchen table, the passion behind her words had members of the audience riveted.

With a set that is basically realistic (with the exception of the ceiling, which is simply made of angled beams), it is the lighting (by Jeanine Davies) that makes the biggest impression in terms of moving the story along. Vast tracts of Death of a Salesman are told in flashback sequences, and Davies uses bright foreground lights to highlight the times when Willy Loman is looking back on his life, wondering what he's done wrong, and how he might one day make it better.

There were a couple of points where the action felt a bit rushed; but for a play that runs nearly three hours (including intermission) it would be difficult for director John Dove to slow the actors down. Luckily, there are a limited number of points where this takes place. Overall, this production of Death of a Salesman is strong and clear, offering both old and new fans the chance to watch this decline of a man who, in the end, simply wanted to be well-liked and successful, and couldn't understand why no matter what he did, he was never quite able to achieve this goal.

"Death of a Salesman" runs until 6th March, 2004.

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Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody