Thursday 14 May 2015

Death Of A Salesman - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Greg Doran

Antony Sher and Alex Hassell

Plaudits have already been heaped on Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman in Greg Doran’s scorching production of Death Of A Salesman for the RSC.  Arthur Miller’s keynote play, long held up as a searching critique of the 20th century American psyche, pitches Sher into a role that sees him suicidally depressed, hurled onto the scrap heap and casually catapulted between imaginary decades at the playwright's whim. Often referred to as the Hamlet of American literature, Sher's immersion in the role is total as he nails Loman’s doomed fragility.

And yet the Hamlet “handle” serves the play well, for as with Shakespeare's classic, so too does the (last) day in this salesman's life encapsulate so much of the human condition, as Willy's mind disintegrates and we witness snapshots of years gone by.

Central to Loman's life is his family and as I have written here, Harriet Walter's interpretation of loyal, even if wise and wrung-out wife Linda, is heartbreaking in its intensity.

In one of the most challenging supporting roles in the canon, Alex Hassell's Biff, their eldest son undertakes a complex journey. Hassell convinces magnificently, be it as a gorgeously chiselled footballing jock, or as a devastated young man confronted with the gut-wrenching evidence of his father's failings.

Less enigmatic, but still troubled is Sam Marks’ Happy, Biff’s younger brother. Whilst at times little more than a skirt-chasing wastrel, Happy shows not only the expected selfish traits, but also a deep and recognisable filial love for his parents.

Harriet Walter, Sam Marks and Alex Hassell

And then there are the other oh-so brilliantly familiar vignettes, epic yet everyman. Emotional hand grenades that Miller tosses into Loman's path. Struggling to meet the final payment on the family refrigerator, Willy asks to meet with Howard Wagner (fine work from Tobias Beer), his young and ruthless boss and a man who thinks nothing of blowing $100 dollars on the latest new-fangled tape recorder, unthinkingly boasting about it to Loman who is can't even meet thr finance payments on his refrigerator.

As the old man begs for a salary, an office based job and his dignity, he is up against Wagner who cares only for his business’ bottom line. As Wagner summarily fires him on the spot, with no regard for the salesman's lifetime of service to the company, Loman reminds him: "You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit". Rarely is the brutality of corporate USA thrown into such sharp relief.

Meanwhile (and consider yet another Hamlet association) Guy Paul's ghostly Uncle Ben appears to Loman's enviously fractured mind. A self-made millionaire, Ben should epitomise the American Dream. It is a stroke of genius that Miller makes him a nightmarish phantom.

But the Land Of The Free is not all bad. Willy's long-time friend and neighbour is Charley. As Joshua Richards plays this goodly, decent man, who as son Bernard (another perfectly weighted performance from Brodie Ross) grows up to be a Supreme Court lawyer, we are reminded that success, built on merit with compassion, is also a part of what made America great.

Completing the landscape of post-war New York / New England Sarah Parks’ Woman, and Ross Green’s wry Waiter, both of whom “have seen it all before” add further lustre to Miller’s palette.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set, constructed according to Miller’s notes and with signature tenement fire escapes, is nicely zoomed in from its Stratford origins which only enhances the cramped confines of the Loman home. Paul Englishby’s quartet of musicians seals both time and place.

It bodes well for this brief West End run that as the curtain fell, the packed house saluted Sher and his company with rapturous applause. Garnering a slew of five star reviews at its Stratford opening last month, the acclaim is still deserved. London is unlikely to see a better ensemble drama this year.

To read my interview with Harriet Walter and her analysis of the role of Linda, click here

To read my review of this production at Stratford, click here

Now booking until 18th July 2015

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