Classic American theatre seems to be riding high in the West End at the moment with some stellar productions achieving critical acclaim and winning handfuls of awards. With the Young Vic’s productions of A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson heading to New York in 2016 and the monumental A View From the Bridge with Mark Strong juggernauting into the West End and now heading to Broadway from October, not to mention Damien Lewis’s appearance in American Buffalo, clearly London is offering leading interpretations of US theatre. In the year of Arthur Miller’s centenary there has probably been no better time to see top-notch productions of his famous plays including the West End transfer of the RSC’s Death of a Salesman.
Willy Loman is a travelling salesman living in an increasingly urbanised district of New York, returning home one day to find his two grown-up sons have come to stay and long-held frustrations soon bubble over. But Willy’s grasp of time has begun to slip meaning he frequently slides back and forth between the present and a variety of happy times he recalls raising his favourite son Biff, a one-time High School American football star who squandered any promise he once had. Biff, now 34, is home to try and make his latest big idea happen, going into business with his brother Happy, if only they could raise the capital. Happy is an inveterate womaniser constantly in the shadow of his elder brother, even though he has fulfilled all the dreams is family once had for his sibling. Over the course of 24 hours the Loman’s must face the truth about themselves and each other before a very different future is left open to them.
The critics have been incredibly enthusiastic about this production and while I wouldn’t entirely disagree with them, seeing a play for the first time is a different experience. Comparison with the recent multi-award winning version of A View from the Bridge, which I also saw for the first time, at the Young Vic (and again at the Wyndhams) means Death of a Salesman isn’t quite in the same league. So while the main critics may say this is the finest production they’ve seen, I felt it took a little too long to get going and to establish the underlying tension within the family, whereas it was immediate in A View from the Bridge and the inevitability of the outcome drove the action more obviously. I’m splitting hairs of course, we’re talking about the difference between a 4 and 5 star production but it’s worth considering how consistent critics are in how they award those coveted marks.
Greg Doran is pretty good at creating tension and drive within (overly) familiar Shakespeare plays and once you start to get a sense of who everyone is the pace picks up nicely, wringing engaging drama from the events of this day. The movement between past and present, as Willy’s mind re-enacts key moments of contentment with his, then, teenage sons is cleverly handled at the front of the stage, while the actors convincingly offer lighter versions of their older selves. Design and projection are cleverly incorporated into Willy’s memories, offering a more pastoral and idyllic feel to the past when a large tree cast a light shadow on the Loman house and the density of the surrounding apartment blocks becomes transparent, suggesting the light and space that once existed in this place. How much of this romantic past is true the production doesn’t entirely explore, however, and although it seems Miller hasn’t clarified it in the text, it might have been interesting to make these sequences even more dreamlike and suggest Willy is taking refuge in an idealised version of the past that never existed. What if Willy wasn’t the loving father he’s suggesting in these flashbacks and the tension with his sons in the present reflects his failure and their unwillingness to forgive?
Antony Sher’s performance is very good, playing Willy as a man unable to keep the threads of his life together and struggling to deal with the changed circumstances that time has brought. Like his son, when once he was the ‘star player’ in the office, he can no longer compete with the younger generation and new techniques that drives his work as a salesman. Those difficulties peak in repeated confrontation with his sons and Sher seems constantly on the edge of agitated outbursts which seem to be as much about the frustrated inaction of his children as his own failure to be the man he once thinks he was. There seem to be a number of ways to play Willy, and Sher goes for anger but perhaps doesn’t quite give enough sense of the loneliness of his job or evoke too much pity from the audience.
Biff is possibly more interesting a character than his father whose failures he somehow mirrors. Alex Hassell gives him an interesting air of disappointment and pain at being unable to fulfil his family’s early expectations of him. Biff has gone from job to job, never settled down and now at 34 is finding doors closing very quickly. There’s an interesting cross-over with Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof whose early sporting career was also curtailed by the same self-destructive impulses that drive Biff to unnecessarily destroy opportunities that come his way. Brick also has a similarly love-hate relationship with his father where the two can only exist when they’re not together, because home reminds Brick and Biff of how much they’ve lost.
Harriet Walter gives good support as matriarch Linda, a classic Miller woman, like Beatrice in A View from the Bridge, who stands back and almost allows events to unfold despite realising the consequences. There is a resignation in Walter’s performance and devotion to her husband’s needs that means she will sacrifice seeing her sons to maintain his happiness – again as Beatrice rejects Catherine to retain Eddie. Happy Loman meanwhile (Sam Marks) is looking for his family’s attention and clearly his frequent affairs are a manifestation of the anonymity and lack of love he feels at home.
The open-fronted two story house design works fairly well, particularly for the first half where most of the scenes are set in the kitchen or bedroom, but it dominates the stage so entirely that it crushes a lot of external scenes into the small space at the front of the stage, which is harder to see from the upper levels of the theatre. While the looming house is a constant reminder that these people can never escape the way their family name and shared history defines them, something a little more flexible, such as a rotating stage would have given them more space to create offices and restaurants as characters interact with the wider world, and offered a little more variety in the visuals.
Death of a Salesman is a classic of American theatre and arguably Miller’s most famous play. This RSC production certainly gives the audience plenty to think about as it examines the curdling of the American dream. As Willy and Linda edge closer to finally owning their own home, they realise the thing they’ve worked their whole lives doesn’t mean as much as it once did. While this may not quite have that epic sense of inevitable tragedy offered by Ivo Van Hove’s stripped back A View from the Bridge, this version of Death of a Salesman examines many similar themes. Reasonably priced tickets are available from Last Minute and it’s worth catching before the run ends; it’s the second best Miller production you’ll see this year.