Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller) RSC, Stratford
It feels slightly rebellious to go to the theatre in Stratford and not see Shakespeare, especially when the theatre in question is the venerable Royal Shakespeare Theatre. But, this year – the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth – the RSC have strayed from their usual repertoire to give us Death of a Salesman. Miller’s play – certainly in this production – has at least one thing in common with Shakespeare. No matter how well you know the story, however prepared you are for the outcome, it still gets you. (And for anyone unfamiliar with this play, the clue’s in the title). Even though I know what happens at the end of the play, as Willy Loman – the eponymous Salesman – exits the stage, I realised I was holding my breath, hoping against hope for a different ending. And as with Shakespeare, it’s a play in which certain themes feel unexpectedly timely – in particular, the line ‘What is a job without a salary?’ resonates in this time of austerity and zero hours contracts.
As Willy, Antony Sher – the complete actor – gives a tour de force performance. His Loman manages to be both pathetically contemptible and utterly noble – we buy his story, even as we are aware that Willy is the ultimate unreliable narrator of his own story. Your heart bleeds for him as his mental state deteriorates. Director Greg Doran has assembled an equally powerful cast for the rest of the Loman family. Harriet Walter endows Willy’s wife Linda – who could be stereotyped as a typical downtrodden wife – a fantastic streak of dignity and strength. Her final speech reduced me – already snivelling – to a quivering wreck. Alex Hassell gives a wonderfully passionate performance as their son Biff, a man child infantalised by his parents’ devotion, suddenly and belatedly being forced to grow up. I can’t wait to see his Henry V later this year. It’s good to see Sam Marks – last spotted as Poins in Henry IV – graduate to a bigger role here, with a confident performance as the younger Loman son Happy. He’s a fantastically promising actor.
Among the strong supporting cast, I especially liked Guy Paul’s slick turn as Willy’s brother Ben. He felt to me almost like the Devil in a Medieval mystery play – the Great Tempter, leading Willy astray. Brodie Ross also does a good job bringing sympathy and dignity to the school swot character of Bernard.
Staging this play on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s thrust stage works beautifully as well, drawing the audience into the action – makes you wonder why thrust stages were ever abandoned for the proscenium arch…
This production also looks fantastic. The set is very clever, and the lighting – which I fear I don’t notice in productions as much as I should – is especially good, and as well as looking good, it does an excellent job of differentiating between the different layers of the action.
Oh dear, I’m gushing. I do try not to do that, but this production got to even your usually hard hearted and cynical correspondent here. Go see it if you can. But if you’re wearing mascara, make sure it’s waterproof. http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/death-of-a-salesman/