Death of a Salesman

Posted on: 02 June 2015 by Laurence Green

A powerhouse production of the Arthur Miller classic starring Antony Sher as hopeless dreamer Willy Loman. Laurence Green reviews.

Antony Sher as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman

One of the greatest American plays of the 20th century – Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – is back in the West End (Noel Coward Theatre) in a superb new RSC production, directed by Gregory Doran, marking the centenary of Miller’s birth.

In the land of the free, each man is in charge of his own destiny. Sixty three year old Willy Loman knows and cherishes this truth. After a life of honest, hard work – 34 years in a job as a travelling salesman - it is Willy’s birthright to retire with his loving wife, Linda, and watch his two handsome athletic sons continue his legacy.

Yet as old age begins to take hold and retirement beckons, Willy’s dream seems further away than ever. Decades of graft and working on the road have somehow failed to translate into wealth. His oldest son biff, who recently returned home from labouring on farms and ranches for more than a decade refuses to follow the path his father has chosen for him. As actions buried in his past resurface, Willy struggles to reconcile his long cherished dream with the life he has actually lived.

The idea for the play began early. At the age of 17 Miller wrote a short story about a salesman. He had observed such a man. In 1938 he wrote another. Both featured the humiliation and suicide of character whose life had fallen short of his hopes - a failure in a culture celebrating the inevitability of success. Miller grew up in the Depression and these stories bore its mark, though the title character in this play, which premiered in 1949, was based on his uncle Manny.

What Doran’s production captures so well is the wrenching cycle of false hope and disappointment that powers the Loman household – the flipside of the American dream and its wounded, honest humanity has something to say to each of us today.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s vividly evocative design - the Loman’s austere household with the soot-blackened brickwork of the Brooklyn tenement windows in the background, represent the uniform desolation of the American Dream.

But it is Antony Sher’s outstanding performance as Willy Loman that really sets this production alight. Armed with ‘a smile and a shoeshine’, this affable little man of misfortune and seller of sad tired dreams seems more heartbreakingly real than ever before. Indeed, Sher beautifully conveys the foolish grandiosity of Willy’s ideas when exposed to the harsh atmosphere of the real world. Equally impressive is Harriet Walter as Willy’s loyal, long-suffering wife, Linda, who provides the balanced realism to Willy’s undying dreams. Alex Hassell also stands out as his pitiful son Biff, a shattered alpha male twisted into self loathing.  

In short then, this powerhouse of a production certainly ranks high on my list of the ten West End shows of 2015.

 

Death of a Salesman

Plays at The Noel Coward Theatre until Saturday 18 June 2015.

Box office: 0844 482 5140

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