'Death of a Salesman': Theater Review
Anthony Sher takes on the most iconic male role of 20th century American theater in this Royal Shakespeare Company production of Arthur Miller’s perennially relevant social drama.
Arthur Miller’s classic assault on the hollow promise of the American Dream gets the full Shakespearean treatment in this powerhouse Stratford production. Marking the late playwright’s centenary year, Death of a Salesman is the latest of many collaborations between actor Anthony Sher and his offstage partner, RSC artistic director Gregory Doran. Their treatment of Miller’s most famous play feels impassioned yet respectful, perhaps overly so at times. But the power of the text wins through, with a political message uncannily attuned to the current climate while also touching on timeless themes of father-son conflict, marital discord and mental illness.
Since the play’s Pulitzer-winning Broadway debut in 1949, Miller’s tragic antihero Willy Loman has won acclaim and awards for George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and many more, most recently Philip Seymour Hoffman in director Mike Nichols’ much-feted Broadway revival in 2012. A 60-year-old traveling salesman with an eternally patient wife and two grown-up sons, Willy is a lower-middle-class Brooklyn everyman raised on the spurious propaganda that bullish self-belief today will reap great riches tomorrow. Now on the cusp of retirement, his mental state begins to unravel as he struggles to reconcile this simplistic fantasy with deepening debts and unresolved Oedipal tensions with his eldest son Biff (Alex Hassell), a former star athlete who has become a disillusioned drifter.
Sher thunders though this almost three-hour production like a steam-powered locomotive, all blowhard bluster and vaudevillian hand gestures. With his nasal voice and nervy energy, his Willy is more akin to Dustin Hoffman than any previous stage incarnation, though a closer physical match is probably Robert De Niro’s desperate failed clown Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, right down to the drooping mustache and greasy mop of hair. In Shakespearean terms, Sher appears to be both channeling his celebrated Falstaff and rehearsing for King Lear, which he and Doran will be tackling for the RSC next year.
The first act initially feels like a slog, partly due to Miller’s preachy verbosity and partly to the Brit-heavy cast all straining, with uneven results, to sound at home in their vowel-chewing Brooklyn accents. Long expository exchanges between Willy and Linda (Harriet Walter), and between Biff and his dim-witted younger brother Happy (Sam Marks), drag a little. But Miller soon gets off his soapboax and proves a more ironic, lyrical and experimental writer than his worthy track record sometimes suggests.
Drifting off into hallucinations, flashbacks and fantasies, Willy becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator as the play progresses. Doran handles these ruptures in the fabric of reality deftly, using a discreet quick-change lift under the forestage. Willy’s explosive mood swings and zigzagging contradictions add more complex psychological shadings, undercutting his PT Barnum bluster and macho pride.
Doran and his team treat the original text and stage directions with more than due reverence, even down to recreating a close facsimile of Jo Mielziner’s Tony award-winning stage design from the original 1949 production (also used in the Nichols revival). An exploded view of the two-story Loman family house, it features a small garden area downstage, and two looming lines of metal-frame tenement blocks crowding out the sun behind. The interior color scheme seems purposely drab, though the fact that the homely bed and clunky antique refrigerator feel like homages to Wallace and Gromit probably reveals more about me than about Doran’s intentions.
Miller’s dense and discursive text demands a certain historical accuracy, but Doran arguably plays it too safe. While jazzy incidental music and dapper period suits have an obvious retro-chic appeal, such period-specific detail also feels uninspired, especially as the play’s themes resonate so strongly in our current age of economic slump and widening inequality. A throwaway line about JP Morgan gets a knowing laugh today, but it is not a new addition. Other submerged currents in Miller’s play, such as Willy’s unspoken Jewishness or the homoerotic undertones of Biff’s athletic Adonis scenes, cry out for a more subversive production. A bolder director might have found a way to emphasize these more contemporary themes without disrespecting the original text.
On first encountering Death of a Salesman as a teenager, it felt to me like a social-realist treatise on class and wealth. It still is, of course. But decades later, it also feels rich in other themes, including Willy’s dementia-style mental condition and bullying misogyny. Having passed on his deluded sense of alpha-male entitlement to his sons, all three now act like boorish pick-up artists, treating women as second-class citizens to be shouted down or sexually exploited. Squeezing maximum juice from her marginal role as Linda, Walter gets some of the play’s sharpest insights and kindest gestures, but she's still essentially a two-dimensional saint. Still, Miller’s proto-feminist linkage of patriarchy and capitalism was unusually prescient for 1949.
It is a testament to Sher and Doran, as much as Miller, that Willy emerges as fully rounded and broadly sympathetic. Most of us will see something of ourselves in this performance, for better or worse. Miller certainly seems to love his most famous antihero despite his flaws, in common with his long-suffering family and friends. It makes sense that the real-life model for Willy was one of Miller’s own uncles, a boisterous optimist who ended up committing suicide. While it's a little staid and stodgy in places, this production ultimately wins the audience over with its humanity and generosity.
Venue: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford (runs through May 2)
Cast: Anthony Sher, Harriet Walter, Alex Hassell, Sam Marks, Brodie Ross, Joshua Richards, Guy Paul, Emma King
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Gregory Doran
Set & costume designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting designer: Tim Mitchell
Sound designer: Jonathan Ruddick
Fight supervisor: Terry King
Music: Paul Englishby
Presented by Royal Shakespeare Company, by arrangement with Josef Weinberger