Death of A Salesman
Directed by Gregory Doran
Set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Tuesday 31st March 2015 7.15 pm
So what is Stratford and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre? I have American friends who have treasured the memory of their pilgrimage there. I have British friends who have only been once or twice in their lives but the experience stands tall in their memories. It is then part of Britain’s Heritage Industry or if you prefer, tourist trade. Let’s take it as a given that Arthur Miller is one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century in the English language. Let’s agree that Death of A Salesman stands with A View From The Bridge (currently on in London) and The Crucible (one of the best 2014 productions) as his best work. Miller is hot. My daughter tells me that her whole A level English class were in floods of tears after a Bristol Old Vic production of Death of A Salesman 15 years ago, So I am not disputing the quality of the play. It’s also such a well-known set book that I’m going to skip any plot summaries.
Then let’s take our American or Australian or Indian or African visitor, or non-native speaker who’s spent years studying the language, along to see Stratford and … well, Shakespeare. Would they not look at Death of A Salesman, accompanied by The Jew of Malta in the Swan Theatre, and ask gently, “Where’s the Shakespeare?” Or has that all changed? Do they stand much chance of getting a ticket anyway? I begin to wonder if the success of the RSC’s membership scheme has pulled in enough British punters (such as us), punters who book the season long in advance on priority booking, that they need not worry about the passing trade? So they can show whatever they think is great theatre without worrying about their mission to present Shakespeare in Stratford? And other Renaissance drama next door in the Swan? I feel that ONE of the two theatres should always have a Shakespeare running. Later in the year, mix and match means that there will be in any three or four day period, though not on a specific day. But right now? No. So should they be doing Death of A Salesman at all? Paradoxically, I could mentally justify The Crucible as going on that RSC thrust stage, simply because it’s similar in period, or rather set in the same century, if at the other end. That’s irrational. It’s nothing to with being American. I’d make the same comment about Wesker or Osborne.
There is a special connection to last year’s Henry IV Parts I and II which toured as well. Anthony Sher shifts from Falstaff to Willy Loman, and Alex Hassell shifts from Prince Hal to Willy’s son, Biff. The adverts add the justification that it marks the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth and says it is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. But is it enough that the director and actors clearly want to do this great tragedy? If they do, wouldn’t the National Theatre or the Old Vic be a more appropriate venue? Or should we see this production as the ultimate accolade to Miller, putting his tragedy on the same stage as the great Shakesperean ones? (My instinctive prejudice is “Should have been at the National, rather than here”)
We walk in to see a magnificent set, which fully justifies setting it in the massive space, and my prejudice was receding before they even got started. As set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis points out in the programme, the play was written for a proscenium arch theatre, and Miller envisaged three acting areas side by side. The RSC thrust stage is far deeper and far higher, but comparatively narrow. They also took the cue from the text that the Loman home was now surrounded by large apartment blocks. These looked realistic, four storeys with fire escapes, and came round the edge to the front of the set with odd lighted windows showing here and there. Let’s be ludicrously picky, but the Lomans moved in 25 years ago. It’s 1949. The apartments were built while they were living there, so post 1924. These are classic New York late 19th century apartments, but never mind they look great. So all the way through the first half I admired what I thought were realistically painted apartments with 3D fire escapes, only to find in the second half they became a transparent frame lit in violet or red, or just black windows and fire escape outlines; then switched back to painted set. Incredible, and a brilliant piece of design and lighting design utilizing semi-transparent materials. Then, when action was at the front of the stage they could completely lose the set in darkness and light only the action at the front.
They lost one diagonal platform entrance to the thrust stage (they didn’t need it) and we were delighted because it meant another set of steps and far faster interval access to the loos from our particular seats thus beating the queues. (I always said this was the blog that mentioned seat comfort and loos).
They replaced the side by side acting areas with height. Happy and Biff’s bedroom was above, the living room and Willy and Linda’s bedroom below. An elevated lift at the front brought in the timeshift Boston hotel bedroom from below stage, as well as an impressive line up of extras to bustle across to create New York streets. The stepped stage raised and lowered. Five star set design.
Meet the Lomans: Biff, Linda, Willy, Happy
Death of A Salesman was always an ambitious play with its constant timeshifts, many changes of set and the number of minor characters who make such brief experiences. It’s the antithesis of the classic Broadway play with its single set, small company, conventional setting. It was a giant leap on from All My Sons a year earlier, in staging, in theatricality and in the innovative timeshifting … as Miller said, past and present co-exist in Willy’s mind, and we see that on stage, and we don’t need devices or fades, it just works as written.
There was an odd timing issue. The cast sheets give the play as 2 hours 30 minutes plus an interval of 20 minutes. Act One duly came in as a neat 1 hour 15 minutes, we had a twenty minute interval, which means Act 2 at 1 hour 30 minutes over-ran its predicted time by 15 minutes. That’s unexpected. I didn’t feel it lost pace (though three of our party of four thought it did), but I was transfixed anyway. It certainly brings up an issue of pre-planning though. How did it gain so much?
We always have the issue of British actors playing American. Some can do it seamlessly. It’s always a problem for us because we spent so many years recording ELT in British and American versions, and got a lot of stick whenever we used English actors doing American or vice versa. These guys are all very good indeed at it, but unlike Damian Lewis or Mark Rylance, you can still sense it. The difference is probably less than an individual American’s personal idiolect, and I never noticed a specific “mistake” I could positively identify, but it still took me half an hour to get past it, because I think there’s an overall common “English actor doing American” tone that affects most parts even if at a subliminal level. One alone wouldn’t matter, it would just be idiolect.
Anthony Sher as Willy Loman
Anthony Sher has the big part as Willy Loman. On the bluster to sensitive/desperation scale in the role, he stayed closer to the blustering interpretation which is valid. I was much more convinced than my companion, and I’d put that down to life. Arthur Miller’s father was a salesman. So was his Uncle Manny, who had two sons, a jock and a philanderer, and who committed suicide. The play was clearly based on him in part. My dad was a sales representative, selling tyres around Dorset and Hampshire. His friends were sales reps. Lots of Willy’s optimism and boosting rang true to me. Even more so, my best friend lived with his grandad, who being older was called a commercial traveller, in haberdashery, and described himself as a gentleman of the road. He came from a genteel era visiting the Grace Bros. department stores of the day, and always advised us only to stay in guest houses where the lady of the house wore a crisp clean apron and there were clean lace curtains in the window.
My dad never had the self-deception which Willy had (and which Happy inherited), but both he and my friend’s grandad were full of advice on how to be likable, how to shake hands, how to look people in the eye and exude open honesty, how to remember their kids’ names and ask after them. At the time I thought it bullshit, but nowadays it’s called communication skills and there’s good money to be made giving corporate seminars on this stuff. My dad was a non-smoker outside of work, but always carried a pack to offer, and would counsel joining in and smoking a cigarette oneself to establish rapport. Of course, nearly all garage owners smoked in those days, so he’d do a lot of rapport establishing. Death of a salesman? He died of lung cancer at 54. Though covering 35,000 miles a year in the days of leaded petrol didn’t help. But Willy’s insistence on his network of “friends” was right. When I was fourteen my dad was offered a major promotion to manage a large area of the North-East. He pondered it at length. My sister and I were horrified at the prospect of moving, but my dad said he’d spent years building up friendship with customers and that was the secret of sales success. He knew his Hampshire / Dorset border accent would be a barrier in Geordie land too. He stayed on the South Coast. Willy has the same relationship with his customers in New England, but none of these friends turn up at Willy’s funeral. (I’ll add my dad had over a hundred).
Willy and Linda (Harriet Walter)
So let’s just say that on an emotional level, this play leaves an imprint on me with the power of its script alone, but I found Sher’s interpretation superb. It grows throughout, which is as it should be. Willy is losing his purpose in life, living in the past, and losing the barriers between past and present, which might be pre-dementia. He is suicidally depressed, hiding it under his bluster, and prone to the sudden bursts of anger that are a feature of loss of direction and purpose. There is act two’s excruciating office scene where Howard sacks him, with brilliant reactive acting from Tobias Beer (as Howard, his boss) helping propel this. Willy’s railing against how things have changed in the workplace away from people and towards statistics and systems uncomfortably echo things I’ve said myself about publishing today, only this play was written my entire lifetime ago. There’s the restaurant scene where Willy hears nothing Biff is saying, but returns only to what he hopefully imagined might have happened. Happy, the other son, is a chip off the old block and aids and abets Willy’s increasingly tenuous rose-tinted glasses view of Biff’s attempt to get a job from ‘Bill Oliver.’ Rose-tinted? It’s rather deliberate ingrained self-deception. If I don’t admit to this unpleasant situation, it doesn’t exist.
Biff (Alex Hassell) in timeshift section
Alex Hassell was an athletic Biff, and had really worked on the football moves, getting humour in the “young Biff” timeshift sections … Miller hated people calling his technique here “flashbacks.” It’s reflection of the mind of Willy rather than a flashback. Biff is the physically attractive popular man that Willy always wanted to be, so when Biff does wrong, it’s a double hit. Willy is trying to live the American Dream, paying off his mortgage, having the refrigerator (Who’s heard of a Hastings refrigerator? he complains), having two fine sons, oiling the wheels of capitalism by selling successfully. Or not, as time goes by and he loses his edge. The final twenty minutes, from the revelation of Willy’s sleazy doings on the road onward, required great physicality and power from both Sher and Hassell, roughing each other up, pushing and shoving. Hassell had to really break down in tears twice too. Harriet Walter as Linda, Willy’s wife and Biff’s mother, completes the lead trio. With only slight costume changes she easily conveys whether it’s the summer of 1931 in Willy’s mind, or the now of 1949. She carries the poignant last speech too.
Sam Marks is a fine Happy, and another carry-over from Henry IV with Sher and Hassell. Joshua Richards was a perfect casting for the old pal, Charley.
When the awards roll in, as they should, Anthony Sher must be up for something. The set and lighting design will be extremely hard to better this year.
Yes, the way this was done DOES justify the RSC. If you actually get to see it. If you can’t get in though, and you visit Stratford, you might still wonder why it’s there. It’ll be an excellent RSC Live broadcast later in the year.
Another RSC where the cover pictures bear no relationship to what the characters look like and wear in the play. Excellent otherwise as usual.
ARTHUR MILLER ON THS BLOG: