Death of a Salesman

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
1st March 2015 
Review by David Smith

From the moment Anthony Sher's Willy Loman staggers through the audience towards Stephen Brimstone Lewis’s cityscape, struggling with his battered suitcases, you are aware something special is about to happen.

Sher noted for his definitive Falstaff and for his forthcoming Lear pays tribute to Miller with his understanding of the doomed Loman. His blousy frame squeezed into a period suit exudes a truly weary air. This is a confused, twitchy Loman, with explosive outbursts of frustration, then the smarm that is a vestige of his door-step trade. His smile perhaps cynical at the realisation that his life’s work has come to little, yet able to switch to a glint of rejuvenation when he remembers how it used to be. These subtle switches highlight Sher’s understanding of the loss of Loman’s  and the American dream.

Gregory Doran (Director) has produced a wonderful revival evoking the post war era with an interlude of jazz, together with Brimstone Lewis’s set which embraces the multiple locations and time zones indemic in the play. The Lomans live in their original wooden house now overshadowed by modern high rise buildings, Miller however called for “the leaves to return” every time the play shifts to one of Willy’s memories, by constructing the “high rise” with semi transparent materials, which suddenly become bathed in sunlight and leaves, brilliantly conveying the changes in mood.

The secret of the success of the performance is that there is no weakness in the cast. It would be easy to be blinded by Sher’s towering performance. Harriet Walter’s Linda is the epitome of Miller’s women, supportive, care-worn and knowing. Gently directing the inflammatory outbursts of Willy towards the truth, delivering the hammer blow of truth to Hap about his womanising. Her exchanges with Biff when he nearly exposes the “other woman” are almost painful.

Alex Hassell’s portrayal of Biff is outstanding, not overshadowed by his illustrious colleagues, indeed he and Willy simply flay each other in their father/son rivalry. How close does Biff come to exposing his Willy’s infidelity when “spite” is spit into his face, the time-bomb he holds, ironically his escape-route cannot be taken, Hassell absorbs all the punishment from both Linda and Willy, teetering with tears of frustration. He knows Willy is redundant both actually and in his thinking, he really does just want to return to the cattle farm. Throughout the verbal violence of these exchanges Hassel never falters in his delivery. Both Hassell and Sam Marks (Hap) the preening lightweight capture the transition from energetic youngsters to older and more confused adults.

Sarah Park’s “Woman” is integral to Biff’s performance, her complete indiscretion in the Boston bedroom, her blundering into Biff’s life, completely shredding his innocence and respect for his father is agonising to observe. Park’s cameo reverberates throughout the rest of Hasell’s wonderful performance. Brodie Ross’s “Bernard” is finely drawn, moving from a sycophant of Biff to the modest yet very successful lawyer. The modesty of his portrayal contrasting the lack of direction of both Biff and Hap and the uncontrolled fluctuations in Willy’s understanding.

Willy is unrecoverable now, Sher understands the acceleration in his demise. He is brutal in exchanges with Charlie, whose advice he sorely needs. His ingrained fascination at the totems of success and belief in “The American Dream” are easily rekindled. Particularly by Guy Paul’s “Ben”. In an innovative scene, Ben enters through the audience dressed totally in white. His suit both expressing his success, yet somewhat “Hamlet” like as Willy begins to think about his life insurance money as a final solution.

So, we arrive at the final departure scene, Walter’s “Linda” poignant in her final goodbye when she tells the departed Willy “I made the last payment on the house today… We’re free and clear”. Hap expresses his grief through wishing to make it in the city as some sort of testimony to Willy. Biff is quite clear with “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong” perhaps Charlie has the epitaph suited to Willy when gently chastising Biff he says “Nobody dast blame this man. All man has got to dream, boy. It comes with territory”.

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