The buildings behind the house are angular shapes and the flute plays. Greg Doran’s Death of a Salesman is as precise and as timeless a production as perhaps there can be. If like me, you have read the play but had never seen it, it will be like your memory has leapt up on stage; such is the power of Arthur Miller’s stage directions, which Greg Doran and Simon Brimson Lewis honour and support with incredible skill. If you have never seen it, this is a near timeless production of a powerhouse of a play. I suppose whether the production is ‘liked’, or ‘well-liked’, in Willy’s parlance, will comes down to your feelings about that honouring process, about faithfulness, timelessness – and its cousin: inevitability.
Antony Sher is on incredible form as Willy Loman. It is such an unflattering role, as Miller’s play creates a kind of bubble around Willy whereby his stock dramatically increases as long as he isn’t onstage, doing anything or saying anything. When he is, he’s normally making everything awful, a dog ripping at his stitches. Sher resists showing us any of the nobility that we are promised Willy represents, and his performance remains as sweaty and lamely-moustachioed as when he first appears.
The play has fourteen or so characters but constantly feels like a four-hander – and Harriet Walter, Alex Hassell, Sam Marks and Sher have captured the familial lies, cruelties and webs of dependence which propel the play. Walter’s Linda is painfully recognisable as the long-suffering wife who cannot bear criticism of a man who diminishes her. Hassell’s Biff, handsome and disillusioned, wears all his insecurities on the outside, and for me this performance was the first time the notion that Biff steals Ben Oliver’s fountain pen made real emotional sense.
It’s fascinating to watch Death of a Salesman the day after The Father, which just opened at the Tricycle. I heard someone at the interval at the Noel Coward last night say that both plays are about dementia. Well, sort of. The Father seems pretty securely about Alzheimer’s, and though both plays attempt to tie the audience experience into the confused experiential space of their older male protagonists, Miller’s presentation of Willy Loman’s slipping in and out of time is not medical as nearly as much as it is political. It is about promises Willy made and was made, and the abrupt realisation that they have become part of his identity without ever being fulfilled. While the presentation of Willy and Biff’s generational antipathy approaches mythical status, it is grounded in the domestic. The play is based in its economic setting: Willy’s failure to have understood it, its failure to value him, Biff seeing both his father and that system as a lie.
“Attention must be paid”, Linda tells her boys at the end of the first half. And the cruelties of companies that consume their employees, products that expire before they are owned, and borrowing to get by week-to-week are familiar threats of our current economic situation. However Death of a Salesman is not such a good play that it will bridge this gap on its own. It is a compelling study of family, of the grist of the American Dream, but it is nevertheless a confused tragedy, a tragedy (when it comes right down to it) of a saleman’s stocking, a son who does not despair at his father’s economic fidelity, but his marital infidelity.
This is fantastic production, and a feat of design and performance. But the play’s world, when preserved with this totally faithful production, creates a patina of timelessness and of inevitability around it which ring hollow, and ultimately drown out those greatest moments of the text, when it is a four-hander in a family home under brutal circumstances. “Attention must be paid”, but celebrating a hundred years from Miller’s birth, I wanted this production to do more than honour – I wanted it to let its guard down and tell me why I should pay attention now. If it’s not your first time in Loman’s head, I suspect you’ll want that even more.