Tag Archives: Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic

Death of a Salesman - Young Vic

With high-quality Arthur Miller revivals across the West End this Spring, the arrival of his much-revived 1949 tale of travelling salesman Willy Loman and his family at the Young Vic has elicited much expectation, not least because celebrated director Marianne Elliott is at the helm. Good direction can often go unnoticed, when the play flows seamlessly or builds the requisite tension and emotional investment for an audience the writer is often credited, but good direction gets to the heart of the play, amplifying and clarifying its themes and resonances. And then there are the directors you do notice, the ones who see beyond the text and its history of performance to entirely change our perspective on the work, these are the visionaries.

We are lucky enough to have a handful of truly visionary directors working regularly in the West End today, all of whom have produced shows in the last few months. Love or loathe their work – and the burden of their approach is to be so divisive – it has a distinctive and recognisable style of its own and is unlike anything else you will see. Ivo van Hove is one such director, liberating the classics like Hedda Gabler and A View from the Bridge from their set-based imprisonment while introducing cinematic techniques into his stage translations of Network and All About Eve. Jamie Lloyd has transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter over many years, not least in the ground-breaking Pinter at the Pinter season and a moving new version of Betrayal, while his take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita this summer will be something to see.

Female directors too are carving a path to visionary status, with Rebecca Frecknall, though early in her career, finding her own style in the astounding Summer and Smoke, followed by a solid revival of Three Sisters. But it is Elliott who has surprised us again and again, not just changing the way theatre is made in her management of technique and production scale, but also upending our perspective of a well-known work with one radical, but fairly canny, decision. When Elliott approached Stephen Sondheim for permission to change the gender of the protagonist in Company the result was inspirational, leading to a long West End run and a new life for a show that felt as though it had always been written that way.

Now, working with Miranda Cromwell, her approach to Death of a Salesman is doing the same, shifting Miller’s perspective on a working family struggling to find their place while reaching for the fabled American Dream. In Elliott and Cromwell’s new version which opens to the press on Thursday, the action takes place in the home of an African American family for the first time, which in some respects makes no difference to the text – suggesting the universality of Miller’s themes and their easy transposition to all kinds of family life – but simultaneously offers a new angle to view this familiar story that, with little change, brings new and meaningful tones to the dialogue.

Miller’s play, on one level, is about ageing and the shift of responsibility and power from parent to child played out within the family, as well as in the commerce-based subplot in which the titular salesman Willy’s ability to perform comes into question. But, the continued infantilization of his two sons, Biff and Happy, means neither is ready to assume responsibility for the household despite being well into their 30s. The intricate balance of fears, resentments and false illusions that connect the Lomans is particularly well created in this production as these men are forced to confront who they really are.

All of the Lomans are fixated on a period 15-years previously when popular eldest son Biff was captain of the school football team and expected to go to College – strongly implied here that he would have been the first member of the family to do so. Willy too was a successful salesman, well-known and welcomed amongst his clients in a time of great prosperity for the family. A flunked maths test and an unknown breach sends the entire family in a different direction; Death of a Salesman is the story of the slow and painful death of these dreams and, as ever with Miller, the acceptance of the truth that remains.

Elliott and Cromwell’s production is full of innovation and while it’s not quite coming together yet, it has all of the building blocks in place to reach where it needs to be in a few performance’s time. With the RSC’s recent production still present in the mind, designer Anna Fleischle eschews the two-story home we’ve seen so many times before and instead opts for a granite tomb-like single floor, with raised platforms to denote different rooms. A barely visible rear staircase shrouded in darkness is used subtly by the characters to occasionally suggest action on the mainstage is now taking place on a different storey. Most visually arresting however are the items of furniture, lighting and windows suspended above the stage and lowered into place to create different rooms.

It’s an impressionistic approach that yields considerable insight into the themes of the play, the characters’ attachment to material possessions as indicators of success, and most especially to the physical home that contains their family history, which they have spent decades slowly paying-off. With almost continuous action and few obvious scene breaks, what Fleischle suggests with this flowing scenery is the tantalising yet illusory nature of these symbols of achievement (both family and objects), that as easily as they lower into place they are removed, and it is matriarch Linda Loman who clearly draws on this point in the play’s pointed conclusion.

The sparring use of music is one of the most notable aspects of this new production which under the musical directorship of Femi Temowo uses the African-American setting to bring additional layers of tragedy by aligning it with the pain and storytelling of mid-century jazz, blues and, at times, even gospel. It opens with cast members singing a sober melody, occasionally lines are sung softly for emphasis while the conversation continues above it, and it ends with an equally sorrowful lament that feels poignant and exciting as a technique. The emotive quality of jazz and blues in particular seems to suit the action without being intrusive while reinforcing the call away from New York to the south and a different kind of living which is one of Miller’s main points of exploration.

Perhaps more than any production of recent times, this version of Death of a Salesman with its hard city surface and not a hint of green, draws out the character’s yearning for the pastoral world and the cleaner, more physical life it offers. This is particularly true for Biff who speaks with passion for his work on a cattle farm and the satisfaction of being within the rhythms of nature and the earth. But other characters also muse on the wonders of life beyond Brooklyn as Willy recalls happy times travelling across New England admiring the countryside which speaks directly to his soul in Wendell Pierce’s performance, and despite his wife’s insistence and the exhaustion that affects his mind, he is reluctant to return to New York for good.

The artificiality of the American Dream and the life it creates for people cooped-up in cities, buying status-based conveniences they don’t really need has major consequences for Willy Loman. Working with Pierce, Elliott and Cromwell create a strange dreamlike quality to Willy’s memories that frequently intrude on the present day. His increasing bewilderment marks a crisis point in the lives of the Loman family, one in which the provider is no longer capable, a reality from which the family seek to protect him and themselves. This schism is given physical form using a series of flashbulbs to cut between fragments of memory, interspersed with slow-motion sports posing and movement as he remembers his son’s heroism and converses in his mind with his own brother Ben about making money. The hyper-real nature of these sections though deliberately stylised are a little awkward, veering into cheesy at times, and although Miller’s message is clear, there is work to do here to increase the efficacy of the scenes.

The production is on much firmer ground with its compelling real-world conversations, and in the sympathetic portrayal of Willy’s breakdown. There is no King Lear-style grand dementia but smaller shifts in personality and lucidity that, as the story unfolds, claim more of Willy’s mind. Pierce gives a meaningful and compassionate performance as a man who has no idea what is happening to him but implies the frustration others experience in caring for his present condition as well as the intimidating man he once was. The rupture in his family began long before, so Pierce adeptly manages this complex bundle of character traits from different eras of his life very well, but as aspects of the fiery antagonist that occasionally reappears with Biff becomes clouded with mutterings about the professional respect he once enjoyed and a desire to escape it all, Pierce’s performance becomes increasingly saddening.

As with previous productions, Biff is probably the most interesting member of the Loman family, and Arinzé Kene captures the duality at the heart of the character. In the early scenes as he reconnects with his brother, the youthful enthusiasm for the rustic work he adores lights him up, but as events play out the pull of his sports-star past and the burden of his parents’ expectations weigh heavy. The intensity Kene brings to the exchanges with his family are excellent, but full of rage as the self-appointed bearer of truth, Kene’s Biff is riven with his own sense of failure, at 34 still hiding from the realities of adulthood, the catalyst for change in his family as he tries to throw off the past in the quest to discovery who he’s meant to be.

Martins Imhangbe as the womanising Happy and Sharon D. Clarke as Linda complete the family unit, with the ever-reliable Clarke bringing texture to the role of devoted wife. Full of pity for her husband and the cruel hand life has dealt him, she’s determined to defend him to the end, even if it means losing her sons – and Clarke gets to use her beautiful soulful voice which helps to flesh-out a small role, suggesting her stoicism while carving out her own motivation by linking to her faith.

Despite being set in what seems to be the 1950s, the Second World War and the implication that both sons may have fought doesn’t frame the Young Vic’s production with the same kind of inevitable intensity that drives All My Sons down the road at the Old Vic, and at 3 hours and 15 minutes it is overlong. Yet, with a focus on “not fitting in” or belonging to this urban world of workers and nepotism, Miller’s play is slightly re-orientated to subtly expose the very different challenges and barriers for African-American families in this period. At this early stage the many well-crafted elements haven’t fully woven satisfactorily together but even if they don’t, with visionary director Marianne Elliott leading the way with such insight, it’s more than enough that this eye-opening production exists at all.

Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


All My Sons – The Old Vic

All My Sons - Old Vic

For fans of Arthur Miller, spring has brought a clutch of new productions to the West End with several theatres  scheduling shows in quick succession, offering audiences a chance to see less well-known work as well as exciting new revivals of his most famous plays. While The Price was well received at the Wyndhams,  Miller’s late piece The American Clock about the Great Depression at the Old Vic failed to illuminate one of the writers most disappointing plays. Miller’s best work, however, was always about families and the ways in which the American Dream, the forces of modern US history and social expectation play out among the confined dynamics of a single household.

Now half-way through this mini-Miller season, and with that in mind, Marianne Elliott’s much anticipated adaptation of Death of a Salesman set in an African American household opens shortly at the Young Vic and looks set to bring new meaning to this well-worn play. This week the Old Vic presents its new version of All My Sons to the press, a production that boasts three significant debuts – Hollywood and Broadway elite Sally Field and Bill Pullman make their first West End appearance as does Jenna Coleman essentially working on her first professional play. Colin Morgan is virtually a West End veteran by comparison undertaking his second major role in under a year (having played the lead in Translations at the National last May).

Set in 1947, All My Sons is a story about the long shadow of conflict and one family’s inability to move-on from the death of their eldest son in combat until truths are heard and a final reckoning occurs. These are major themes in Miller’s work as personal delusions must be shattered so that a purer world can emerge, one in which the younger generation can live free of the guilt of their parents who must accept responsibility for the world they have created, one often driven more by commerce than duty. All My Sons is a tragedy in the truest theatrical sense, as flawed characters must recognise their folly and atone for the devastation they cause, something which director Jeremy Herrin manages adroitly as his production builds to its powerful and inevitable finale.

But as the curtain rises on Max Jones’s charming garden set, the Keller house looms into view, indicating right from the start that this seemingly beautiful home is a trap for each of the characters we are about to meet, the manifestation of patriarch Joe’s need to provide for his family, but with a stranglehold that prevents any of them from truly moving on. Still mourning the death of their son Larry – or in wife Kate’s view refusing to accept his death – the family are frozen by the events of their past, the apple tree snapped in half by the storm denoting a rotten emptiness beneath Jones’s verdant design, one that mirrors Joe’s character, the surface decency stripped away as the story unfolds.

The cost of war hangs heavy over this lush scene and in Herrin’s meaningful production a clear divide is drawn between the men who fought and the much-hated war profiteers, in this case carving the Keller family right down the middle. The three core young men in the play – Larry, Chris and Ann’s brother George – are all veterans, risking death and injury for their country which creates an idealism in Chris particularly about the kind of world they fought to protect. Their military service is subtly referenced but it stands in stark contrast to the concerns of businessman Joe, building a firm from scratch and, after the accusations against him are dispelled, taking pride in resuming his place in the neighbourhood and his profit margin. Miller actively asks the audience whether these two things have the same societal value, a question which drives the play’s powerful conclusion. Miller is drawing a clear line between the experience of former servicemen and the civilians who will never understand.

There is a shifting notion of heroism in Herrin’s production, not just in the idea of servicemen dying in battle and this tangible concept of societal duty that underscores the central drama, but it is also there in the relationships between father and son – another major Miller theme – as Chris is forced to readjust his devoted admiration for Joe in light of the play’s various revelations. The result is affectingly portrayed here as the external perception of Joe and his own self-image are fundamentally destroyed. What makes this so illuminating a proposition is that unlike the idealistic Chris living in a bubble of family protection, Miller reveals that the secondary characters, neighbours and friends were never fooled, that there is a complicity in the knowledge that Joe had cheated the system for his own ends, showing him and this perfect enclave of rural America to be a far grubbier proposition, pitting this against the suggested purity of the younger generation dying in battle to preserve a country that  betrayed them.

The faces Joe shows to his family and to the world are clearly quite different and those layers are what make Pullman’s performance so fascinating. As an actor, his creations often have an essential decency through their core that makes them generally admirable, whether he’s playing the bumbling lover in rom-com While You Were Sleeping, US President in Independence Day or surly detective in The Sinner, there is an essential humanity and compassion in the characters he chooses. Here, Pullman uses our expectation to his advantage, blindsiding the audience with Joe’s surface charm. When we first meet him, he’s relaxing in the garden, light and friendly with his neighbours, devoted to his son, the very image of man at ease with himself and the life he’s worked hard to build. But there is something under the surface that subtly takes over Pullman’s performance. You hardly notice it at first, only that his son never returns the physical affection Joe shows him, there is a barely perceptible barrier keeping them apart.

Joe’s determination to ignore Kate’s ravings for her lost son, his frustration with neighbour Frank for humouring her with a horoscope to prove Larry must still be alive, and later his momentary loss of temper slowly builds a picture of a different man to the one we’ve seen. Pullman is excellent in conveying the slow emergence of Joe’s commercial and unforgiving inner self, the artful manipulation of those around him to conceal the truth and the gradual realignment of the audience’s perspective on him. Yet the performance is still full of pathos, particularly in the closing scenes when he must confront his crumbling self-assurance while clinging to the excuse of family prosperity. The power of the play’s finale moments is testament to the conflicted complexity that Pullman has found in Miller’s hugely flawed but engagingly multi-layered character.

In the same vein Kate’s illusions must also be shattered in order for this contaminated past to be left behind, a place where only by facing the truth can the characters be free to live as Kate urges Chris in the play’s final moments. Sally Field is exceptionally good as Kate in an incredibly difficult role that must make the nervy emotionalism of a desperate mother somehow credible without seeming too histrionic which Field does with ease. Her Kate is at a fever pitch from the start, fussily anxious about Ann’s unexpected return and the consequences for her family while clinging harder than ever to the certainty of Larry’s eventual return.

What Field does so well is balance the extremes of Kate’s behaviour, making her a frustrating person for Chris and Joe to manage, while retaining a deep sympathy for a woman who has devoted her life to being a wife and mother – a maternal warmth that equally welcomes the temporary return of George with genuine affection – and now unable to accept the failure of her own dreams for herself and for them. Her delusion makes her occasionally cruel, especially to Ann but also to Chris with whom she also remains at a slight distance, while the final reckoning is devastatingly played by Field as the truth finally overwhelms her.

Colin Morgan as son Chris is the innocent in the play, reacting to the revelations and sudden shifts that affect the lives of his parents. As an all-American boy who served his country and returned to the family business, Morgan pitches his performance somewhere between Marlon Brando and James Dean, a young man keen to embrace the future with a marriage inspired by the happiness of his parents but frustrated by the general pretence that the war never happened. Of all the characters Chris is most eager for truth and a new beginning but still craves the familiarity of home which Morgan evokes well.

As the most idealistic character, we start to see other, more critical, perspectives on Chris as the story unfolds so Morgan inserts a slight ambiguity into the relationship with Joe, a discomfort when hugged or touched by his father implying, at least a subconscious implication, of his father’s deception that aligns with the neighbour’s view of Chris’s possible complicity. Although Morgan’s accent gets a little thicker in the final act as Chris’s emotional state heightens, his performance suggests interesting questions about what he really knew and whether pursuing his brother’s fiancée is a chance to make amends for his family’s crimes. Is Chris more like his mother than he realises, refusing to believe something he knows to be true, eventually forced to confront his own failure to act.

Jenna Coleman makes an impressive stage debut as Ann, the catalyst for change in the Keller family, convincingly capturing the frustration and forward-looking desire of a woman expected to mourn her dead fiancé forever. Her affection for the Keller family is clear along with the need to return from the anonymous city to a place that signifies home and comfort, something she hopes a life with Chris will restore to her. Equally her brother George, played extremely well by Oliver Johnstone, has the most dramatic scene, full of rage and injustice as he sweeps in determined to rectify the past. Also a war veteran, Johnstone implies a slight limp, and uses his small but pivotal role to reinforce the loss of innocence that Miller is writing about in this Eden-like garden, where George is tempted for a few seconds by the warmth of the Keller family and his own long departed memory of childhood happiness.

Herrin controls the unfolding story very carefully, the slow sense of unease growing through the long lazy summer day of Act One, building to an edge-of-your-seat tension as the drama unfolds in Act Two and Three. With Death of a Salesman opening soon, and two of Hollywood’s finest actors making a welcome and impressive West End debut here in All My Sons, spring is proving to be quite the treat for Miller fans. With compelling performances from the four leads this production of All My Sons fulfils its promise, a gripping Miller tragedy that concludes with a lasting sense of devastation.

All My Sons is at the Old Vic until 8 June with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


No Villain – Trafalgar Studios

No Villain - Trafalgar Studios by Cameron Harle

Arthur Miller could easily be considered America’s greatest twentieth-century playwright were it not for the likes of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, contemporaries of Miller, who arguably also deserve that accolade. Miller though has rarely been out of fashion and his plays that so often focus on working men and the problems of industry have struck a particular chord in London’s West End in our current age of austerity. It would be too simplistic to see the almost outrageous success of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge – which earned a shed-load of UK awards before adding more at the most recent Tony’s on Broadway and some days I might even admit it was best thing I’d ever seen in the West End – as the cause of a fresh round of Miller-mania but with high profile versions of classics The Crucible at the Old Vic, and the RSC’s Death of Salesman, the appetite for Miller’s work is as strong as ever.

Wonderful then to be offered something entirely new. While rooting around in the archives of the University of Michigan, director Sean Turner unearthed Miller’s very first play written in 1936 when he was at College thrown together in just six days. Not performed for 80 years, No Villain was created solely to win a cash prize to allow Miller to continue with his studies, and duly awarded the play was cast aside. It received its premiere at the Old Red Lion theatre in Angel earlier this year before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios for the next couple of months.

An undiscovered play is like a treasure trove for theatre lovers, one that hints at the genius to come while telling us much more about the author’s process, idea formation and route to success. No Villain is the story of the Simon family and in what would become a commonplace model for Miller, it is concerned with the relationship between a father and his two sons, one doing all the work while the other is the favourite. There’s industrial unrest at the factory preventing the Simons from shipping their fur coats to buyers and Miller’s early flirtation with concepts of Communism are used to amplify both the generational gap between the managerial father and his worker sons, as well as dividing the brothers as Arnie’s intellectualism is pitted against Ben’s practical application of Communist principles at work.

But the play opens with domestic concerns as the family sit around late one night waiting for Arnie to return home from College. He’s told his mother Esther he’ll get the bus or hitch-hike aiming to be home around 11.30pm, but being of a somewhat hysterical nature her anxiety increases with every minute and begins to work herself and her family to a pitch of agitation. Nesba Crenshaw makes Esther permanently panic-stricken and constantly on edge, so even after her family is reunited we see the endless worry about factory finances, her husband’s ability to cope and her ailing father who’s come to stay. Her lot in life is to worry about men while never fully cutting the apron strings for her sons – she seems to have no concern at all for her teenage daughter – and this leads to considerable moments of tension and frustration for them as she pesters and nags them until they crave peace elsewhere.

Patriarch Abe Simon feels like an early draft of Miller’s famous salesman Willy Lowman and the relationship with his sons is similar fraught. Like his wife, Abe is afraid of the future, of progress and even technology which the thread of Communism seems to imply. Part of that fear comes from knowing his business was already ailing before the strike amplified his difficulties and that a time is coming when he will be replaced by a younger generation. In David Bromley’s performance we see that Abe relies heavily on his son Ben who seems the only one capable of practical action, even needing him to work the telephone for him, yet at the same time Bromley shows us Abe’s fear of his children, of their new world view and growing inability to control them. Miller was fascinated by father-son relationships and this one helps us to see that the transition from child to adult is a difficult one for a father to oversee as the son begins to excel and surpass his parent.

George Turvey is excellent as the world-weary Ben trying to balance filial duty with his belief in his greater business sense and the knowledge that the family prefer his brother Arnie. We’re given hints that Ben too was at College once, although whether he completed his studies or sacrificed them to join the family business as his dad wishes is unclear. Turvey’s Ben is also engaged in a constant battle – much like his mother – shouldering both the primary burden of the flailing business as he negotiates with banks and suppliers to save his father from the truth, but also acting a crutch for the family, often taking the lead on decision-making and calming the worries of his more emotional parents. But Ben is also kind and we hear not only of his sympathy for the workers but, in a throw-away moment, his attempts to pay them during the strike, showing that while his family cling avidly to every last inch of the past, Ben is bravely accepting and almost welcoming of a different future.

The rest of the characters are a little thinner and as you could expect from such an early work, Miller’s inexperience is most obvious here. Arnie played engagingly by Alex Forsyth keeps everyone waiting for some time at the start, building up an idea of his importance to the story that is never properly realised. He makes for a great contrast with his brother – brain against brawn – but never feels anything more than a pen sketch of something that should be much deeper given how other characters refer to him. There is a daughter Maxine whose minor appearances involve giggling, being indulged by her father and being sent to another room, and a resident Jewish grandparent who adds to the crush in the Simon household but Miller doesn’t use this third generation to make any further points about changing expectations of masculinity or even the challenges of their faith.

No Villain is understandably a tad incomplete as a play but this production nonetheless proves to be an engaging and insightful 80 minutes. While Miller’s early attempt to blend politics and domestic drama are somewhat cruder than his later work, the genesis of his approach to playwriting and the formation of idea and character are fascinating. Turner’s vision of a family in decline and the economic effects of the Depression Era are not only brilliantly realised but couldn’t be more timely. As a result of the recent referendum, the UK is now on the edge of its own precipice and the as yet unknown consequences will be felt for many years to come. In this context, the staging of Miller’s first play feels astonishingly relevant.

No Villain is at the Trafalgar Studios until 23 July. Tickets are £15-£30. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Death of a Salesman – Noel Coward Theatre

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.

Death of a Salesman is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 18 July. Tickets start at £12.25, while Last Minute also has tickets for £22.50 for the Upper Circle. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


A View from the Bridge – Wyndhams Theatre

Independently The Young Vic and the Wyndhams have been having quite a run of form with back-to-back critically acclaimed productions, so it was only a matter of time before they joined forces. Last year the Wyndhams played host to Cary Mulligan’s West End debut alongside Bill Nighy in the impressive Skylight, followed by the Charles III transferring from the Almeida, and will soon welcome Damien Lewis and Jon Goodman in American Buffalo. The Young Vic too had hit after hit, notably a pulsating Streetcar Named Desire and this remarkable version of A View from the Bridge, undoubtedly the best production of last year, transferring to the Wyndhams for a brief and welcome reprise.

It’s pretty rare for me to give an unequivocal five stars to any production and to do so twice in less than a year is unheard of, which should give you some indication of how very special this production is. Some give out five star reviews quite readily, but honestly I can think of only four productions I’ve ever seen that I would say were genuinely five star. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of really great shows and some of our finest actors which I’ve really enjoyed, but a truly five star production is something more than good acting/script/production values or the frisson of seeing a famous star, it has something I can only describe as an added ‘magic’. It means you don’t just empathise with the characters you live it with them – at the risk of sounding even more pretentious, the play becomes transcendental and nothing else exists except what’s happening on that stage.

It’s interesting then having been fulsome in my praise of this production last year to have the chance to watch it again. How could it possibly live up to that expectation, surely I couldn’t feel the same about it now I’d seen all the tricks? But in all honesty, this is every bit as incredible as it was last May, gripping, emotionally wrought and utterly mesmerising. It’s the story of Eddie Carbone, a dock worker living happily in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge with his wife and teenage niece. As the play opens the niece Catherine has a new job and Eddie’s dilemma begins; he wants to protect her and has in mind a glorious future she deserves, perhaps in Manhattan – a future that a woman in her position is unlikely to attain. Their situation is further muddied when Catherine falls in love with Rodolpho who is working illegally in the US and living with the Carbones. What follows is an epic struggle where Eddie, a man who ‘never knew he had a destiny’ finds he cannot escape it.

So much about Ivo van Hove’s interpretation is so simple, just the actors and the words in a confined space to emphasise the inevitability of what is happening to them, as well as the limitations of their community. Where innovations are used, they enhance the storytelling rather than distract, and it’s great to see the design transfer so successfully from the Young Vic. There, this was performed on a three-sided thrust stage and the Wyndhams only has a proscenium arch, but the giant black-box remains with the lid rising up instead of a curtain to reveal the players caught inside. And this does mean that incredibly ending is retained– I’m not going to spoil this for you, but it’s every bit as bold and electrifying as last year. And the Wyndhams have cleverly added four rows of stage seating in the wings which means you get right up close to the action and I recommend booking these if you can for that all-involving experience as well as a bit of potential celebrity spotting- Rupert Everett was nearby when I went.

Seeing this for the second time gave me a better chance to see the various layers of performance and although I referenced the themes of masculinity and honour in my previous review, these elements came across even more strongly this time, through Eddie’s competitive boxing with the young Rodolpho and mocking his looks and singing, designed to show Catherine he’s somehow less of a man. Even a small scene when Eddie and Marco (Rodolpho’s brother) undergo a test of strength is a glimpse into their need for manly display and the battle between the generations – challenging the dominant male in the pack.

The acting is perfect and seeing it again showed how all the characters are complicit in events, from Nicola Walker’s resigned Beatrice (Eddie’s wife), quietly trying to separate her husband from her niece, to Phoebe Fox’s stifled Catherine struggling to attain the life she wants rather than the one Eddie wants her to have. Mark Strong’s performance as Eddie is sublime; a mass of contradictions utterly unaware of the fatal flaw that drives him to destruction – completely believable, blind and heart-breaking. Towards the end when the tension is at its highest point and you don’t think your emotions can take any more, Strong powers to a new level as Eddie demands respect for his name, it’s amazing.

I said earlier that you live a five star production with the characters, and this is the most compelling aspect of this show. You feel every emotional flicker, every change of tone and as the doom plays out you will want to run up to them and beg the characters to stop. You’ll want to shake Eddie until he sees what he’s doing because you just know it’s going to end very very badly and there’s no way to stop it. By the way, talking to the actors and generally involving yourself in the production is frowned upon, so you’ll just have to sit there and watch it all happen as powerless to stop it as the characters themselves.

Last year I wrote that ‘the drama in this breath-taking production thumps into you and when you’re down kicks you a few more times’ and the force of it is something that stayed with me in between. This was certainly true the second time as well and I left the theatre feeling shaken by what I’d seen. So this production has thoroughly earned its collective ten stars from me, and if you never see another piece of theatre for the rest of your life, make sure you see this. You’ll never forget it.

A View from the Bridge is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 11 April and tickets start at £19.50 for the balcony and on-stage seating, and a range of prices for the rest of the auditorium. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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