Alex Hassell (Biff), Harriet Walter (Linda Loman), Antony Sher (Willy Loman) and Sam Marks (Happy). Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Reviewed by James Karas
The 100th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Miller seemed like a good excuse for the Royal Shakespeare Company to produce his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman.
Gregory Doran, the RSC’s Artistic Director assigned the play to himself and gave the leading role to Antony Sher, one of the best classical actors in the business. The result is an outstanding production of an iconic play.
Death of a Salesman is about a person, a family and a national dream. Willy Loman, the salesman, lives with his wife and two sons in a small, mortgaged house in Brooklyn where everything seems to be purchased on the instalment plan.
Loman is an ordinary man who drives to stores around New England selling goods. But he has big dreams about himself and especially his children. He has illusions and delusions about the past, the present and the future. Reality is a phase that he refuses or is unable to face.
Sher is a small man and his size is quite suitable for the pathetic Loman who is beaten down by reality but keeps slugging and grasping for his dreams like a battered and bloodied boxer vying for the championship. But he cannot escape the shallowness of his thinking and his ambitions. Being “well liked” is not a formula for success. His wise and humane neighbor Charley (Joshua Richards) gives him money but Willy accepts it only as a loan and he intends to pay it back. And he believes it and he means it.
Sher as Loman is garrulous, offensive, annoying, pathetic and endlessly optimistic against all odds. Sher captures all the negative aspects of Loman’s character but he also grasps his humanity as the guilt-ridden little man tries to come to terms with his own life. A simply outstanding performance.
Harriet Walter as his wife Linda is the woman of strength and perseverance who knows it all, who sees his goodness beneath the bombast and the illusions but can do nothing about it. Walter strikes the necessary balance between the suffering wife, the knowing woman and the strong mother.
Loman’s sons are fascinating characters because they are the product and victims of his illusions and delusions. Biff (Alex Hassell) buys into his father’s dreams and illusions until reality comes crashing down on him. Hassell plays the young, handsome, shallow, arrogant and mendacious Biff as if he were born to play the part. His brother Happy (Sam Marks) is just as delusional and he learns nothing from his father’s and Biff’s experience. He intends to make it.
Loman’s brother Ben appears like a figment of Willy’s imagination. He is a man who went into the forest and came out rich. He has fulfilled all if Willy’s dreams but he is not real.
Death of a Salesman is in part a memory play with flashbacks to the past but the memories may be no more real than Loman’s illusions and delusions. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has set the Loman house between high rise buildings that are choking it. For the restaurant and hotel scenes furniture is elevated from below stage. The light changes from the grim tenements of the present to sunbathed buildings of the past when we go back in time. Effective work by lighting designer Tim Mitchell.
Doran has produced an extremely effective production. From the minor players to the lead roles and the overall design he has captured the essence of the great play. It is a paean to American drama and to the great playwright on the centenary of his birth.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller runs until May 2, 2015 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon and transfers to the Noel Coward Theatre, 85-88 St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4AU from May 9 to July 18, 2015. www.rsc.org.uk