BECCA BAINBRIDGE reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Death of a Salesman at the Noël Coward Theatre.
Sat in his shed in Connecticut in 1948, Arthur Miller conceived ‘Death of a Salesman’ in a mere six weeks. In the present day, and in the year that marks the centenary of the playwright’s birth, the genius of his invention is rendered all the more remarkable as the play continues to be the most celebrated amongst his works. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production has big shoes to fill – or in this instance a briefcase – a task made doubly difficult by the recent prevalence of Miller’s plays in London theatre.
Hard on the heels of Ivo van Hove’s three-times-Olivier-award-winning ‘A View from the Bridge’, director Gregory Doran boldly invites the comparison with his interpretation of a Miller classic. The contrast is incontrovertible. Where van Hove sought to provoke his audience with controversially minimalist staging and an ominously perpetual audial pulse, Doran remains highly orthodox in approach. Akin to the stereotype of “traditional theatre” often associated with the RSC, the scenery of this production is static such that it is the simplistic use of lighting, props, and actors moving across the foreground of the set that evokes a change of time and place. The latter is executed with limited success: the use of actors to distract from the movement of furniture is an all too obviously artificial attempt to induce a sense of the bustling streets of New York. With a painterly touch, the illumination of small windows and miniature fire escapes in the background to the Loman household is much more efficacious in gently conjuring a backdrop of lively downtown Brooklyn. Most intriguingly, Doran interprets Miller’s instruction to set the play ‘today’ as the time of its publication in 1949. It is a commendable decision that boldly contravenes the present trend for contemporary reinterpretation. Instead, Willy Loman’s life unfurls itself from the quintessential 1940’s idealism of the American Dream at the play’s core.
Despite the title ‘Death of a Salesman’ connoting tragedy, the emotional appeal of the play springs from family drama. Willy (Anthony Sher), a salesman nearing his retirement, fails to live up to his own self-aggrandising ego. His affectionate wife Linda (Harriet Walter) begins to suspect that, alongside his financial difficulties, her husband may be grappling with an internal struggle of a different kind. Biff, the Loman’s oldest son, bears the brunt of his father’s disgruntled rants about his disappointment at his progeny’s lack of success in business. Caught in the cross-fire of angry words, Happy, the youngest Loman brother, lacks the poetical tongue of his brother though possesses the majority of his father’s worst traits including his frolicsome way with women.
Sher plays Miller’s protagonist with a stubbornness of will that surpasses a mere delusion of grandeur. The agitated portrayal of his deterioration into senility exacerbates the pathos incited by the character’s blind determination to succeed. Yet, the pity this inspires is almost entirely erased by Sher’s obstinate demeanour as Willy refuses to confront his own failings. Reminiscent of the actor’s recent turn as Falstaff in the RSC’s Henry IV Parts I and II, Sher exemplifies the pomposity and self-love of a man weakened by his bloated ego. Alex Hassel’s youthful Biff, like his Prince Hal to Sher’s Falstaff, is played with a hyperbolic, bouncing immaturity that is offset by his older self who is painfully disillusioned with his father’s grandiose schemes. By contrast, Sam Marks’ portrayal of Happy is nuanced and subtle; yet, even when he is passive in the background to a scene, his presence on stage cannot go unnoticed. He lacks the self-awareness of older Biff, and willingly succumbs to self-delusion and delights in promiscuity, but holds the interest of the audience as the catalyst between his brother and father’s fiery relationship.
It is Harriet Walter as Linda Loman who provides the feisty, albeit socially constrained, female contrast to the patriarchal trio. Walter utters her lines with a steady determination that conveys a disparately realistic viewpoint to that of her husband and two sons. Her innate ability to perceive the fantasies of her husband is played with the utmost delicacy: she communicates a temperate compassion even when forthright with her words. The ghostly Uncle Ben, Guy Paul, dressed in cream and with pale pallor becomes an eerie reminder of Willy’s psychological decline. Miller’s script fuses a dream-like stupor with a reality Willy abhors to confront, blending the Ben who is the figment of Willy’s imagination with the domestic scenes of the Loman household in which the real Ben interacts with Linda. However, the entry of Ben offstage feels a little contrived – an unnecessarily flagrant reminder that his character is an interloper.
Another point of directorial contention is the huddling together of the three Loman men at centre stage. The physical closeness creates a sense of a strong filial bond and provides a visual contrast to the steak house when the trio are seated uncomfortably around a table, but the former appears unnatural and forced. Yet the production does achieve moments of realism when the actors are more simplistically placed within the family house, where the body language between them is not as consciously prescribed. In these scenes, the continuity of Willy’s unchanging attire assists in the crosscutting between time periods, suggesting that his stubborn character is an intrinsic characteristic that grates against the changing personalities, and clothes, of his maturing sons. The use of musical refrains, such as the flute music at the beginning and end of the play and Uncle Ben’s motif, integrates the past with the present and the real with the abstract fluidly, generating a cohesion of characters upon their entry into a scene.
The RSC’s transfer of ‘Death of a Salesman’ to the West End is a much more staid interpretation of Miller’s work than the current fare in London theatre, but it avoids being stilted. It is a production worth the viewing for this contrast alone: a reminder of the Miller on the page, without the glaring lights of the modern stage.
To book tickets and for more information visit: http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/death-of-a-salesman/. ‘Death of a Salesman’ runs until the 18th July at the Noël Coward Theatre.