Death of a Salesman: RSC, Noël Coward Theatre

It is safe to say that everyone expects a salesman to die tonight. The fact that the play’s climax remains fresh and shocking is testament to the ingenue of Arthur Miller. The Harlem shaker of the post war era penned four of the quintessential plays of twentieth century theatre. A writing spree of just eight years between 1947 and 1955, the ages of 32 and 40 produced Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons and A View From The Bridge. They are heads of state in the cabinet of drama, making Arthur Miller, the pontifex of playwrights. His impact lasts long into the modern era. A pantheon of the inspired that counts talents as diverse as Hare to Leigh, Pinter to Storey. Alongside Tennessee Williams, Miller reinvented British theatre. By a transatlantic accident, being American.

“I still feel-kind of temporary about myself” says protagonist Willy Loman to his brother Ben. There is nothing temporary about Miller; his is a lasting legacy. This RSC production comes a hundred years after Miller’s birth and a decade since his death. This excellent, unadulterated production could be classified a revival. Instead, it is a celebration. His plays come in and out of fashion within the theatre elites, but his relevance remains. Socially and politically, his tales of average men, trying to forge a future for themselves and their families, but becoming the victims of capitalism, will always find an audience.

Not least now after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The worst since 1929 left the markets reeling and trust in the institutions of the economy disintegrated. Miller’s generation will be seen in the light of the great darkness of the Wall Street Crash and the years of depression that followed. Whether the choice was to escape this reality, like Kerouac, or stare straight at the gloom, as Steinbeck, the shadow cast over these writers was the failure of a system that was supposed to sustain. Miller found the answer in Marxism. But he held no vision of utopianism, instead grappling with the great failures in America’s land of hope and dreams. Finding tragedy in the suburban everyday.

Suburbia fascinated Arthur Miller. The way in which it was possible to raise a common character like Willy Loman and place him on the world’s stage. Inspiration for Death of a Salesman lay unused for over ten years while Miller was distracted by other projects such as All My Sons. His uncle, Manny, whose one ambition in life was to set up a business for his two sons, was the germ of the idea for the play. In this one man, Miller witnessed the competing paradoxes of a man. The liberated sexuality, yet unerring ideal of love for one woman; the desire to fulfil the past dream in the never ending pain of the present, while maintaining a futile faith in the future; the passion within an extended family that both fuels loving and loathing, jealousy and pride. In short, the verism of family. The abstract complexity of the most basic social unit.

The opening of the play in 1949 saw the united talent of director Elia Kazan and star Lee J Cobb. It is down to the RSC’s Creative Director, Gregory Doran and protagonist Antony Sher to capture some of the original power of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning production. Doran entrusts safe hands to the principle male leads of Willy and eldest son, Biff. In Anthony Sher (disarmingly looking like an aged Nicolas Cage) and Alex Hassell, Doran partners the successful and established relationship that was founded during the RSC’s Henry IV Parts 1&2. As Falstaff and Hal, the pair spent the past years in a state of bizarre familial familiarity as the bantering hoodlums of Shakespeare’s creation. There is no better prelude to the roles that the two now possess. In terms of chemistry and dynamism, the Shakespearean comrades are the perfect characters to transfer to the father/son proximity of Miller’s world. The nepotism and nihilism of Falstaff and Hal translates easily into Death of a Salesman’s patriarchal pressures.

Unsurprisingly, the pairing, made into a quartet of leads alongside Harriet Walter (Linda) and Sam Marks (Happy) distinguish themselves within the emotional register of the play’s compressed environment. Compression within the intensity of the nuclear family. A pressure cooker that bubbles in a furnace of feverish, often unexpressed feelings. As such, the play can be a challenge in the subtextual engagement of an actor to break the confines of the stage. In order to interact with both the internal, the character – a construct with which to fashion a believable, thinking, breathing person – and the external – the audience, a being that needs to be brought to its knees by the tragedy of events onstage. But the drama needs to transcend the stage, project across the pulpit to stop preaching and start pathos. The actors must make real the words on the page. This they do.

Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis creates a traditional setting for the play; a three tier set in which the kitchen and master bedroom dominate, while the brothers’ bedroom sits atop and front of stage is used for the scenes outside of the family home. These environs become an epitaph for family as the compression chamber of the insular stage implodes around Sher’s Willy. The lighting is handled delicately to realise the deftness of the scenes that revolve around Willy’s dream sequences. As the past coincides with the present in Willy’s rapid descent to his final deed, the lights rise and fall in perfect accompaniment shining stark or soft on Sher’s face; conjuring a light to reflect his sanity. The name of Loman, derided as base opportunism (‘low’-‘man’) by Miller’s contemporary critics was in fact chosen because it sounded like the name of a man who had lived. I can tell you the name of another man who has lived. That man is Arthur Miller.

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