Review: The RSC's Death of a Salesman with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter
There are lots of things that seem appropriate about the RSC staging a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
It is a play that is rich in ideas like Shakespeare's, is a grim as any of his tragedies and has at its heart dreams and illusions like some of his best plays.
Then there is the cast. Antony Sher who plays Willy Loman was last seen playing Falstaff in Henry IV*, a character steeped in his own illusions and dreams. Falstaff is part father figure, part rascally chum to Prince Hal who sees through him and rejects him. Alex Hassell played Prince Hal and in Death of a Salesman play's Willy's son Biff who ultimately rejects his father's principles.
And, like many of the themes of Shakespeare's plays, Death of a Salesman feels as pertinent today as when it was first performed in 1949.
Willy has been a salesman for thirty or so years, travelling far and wide. He believes that being liked is the key to success and yet has never quite attained the success he has dreamed about. He and his wife Linda (Harriet Walter) are getting close to paying off the mortgage on their house but times are tough and Willy isn't bringing in as much commission as he once was.
His elder son Biff has returned home having been working as a farm hand and there are tensions between father and son which Linda is constantly trying to sooth. Happy (Sam Marks) is the younger son and has gone into business and believes a big promotion is just around the corner.
Willy has started talking to himself and these form a series of flashbacks through which we learn of the family's past, how Biff was the apple of his father's eye and going to do great things but then something went wrong.
The truth about the past and how it changed Biff ultimately shatters the illusion the family has built up around itself.
Through Biff, Miller questions the American dream and its many facets. Where it feels most pertinent today is in how it questions success, popularity and the sense of self.
Willy judges his success by his popularity. He believes doors have opened because of the name he has made for himself. Probably the saddest moment is when he talks about how lots people will come to his funeral.
His downward spiral in part begins when he starts losing all his old contacts but he still maintains the illusion. Willy probably would have loved social media and the appearance of popularity that it generates.
It is a double tragedy because he has brought his sons up to believe the same things. He allowed Biff to neglect school work because he plays in the football team and is popular. The grown up Happy is like the mirror image of his father always believing that he is on the cusp of greater things.
Having seen through his father's philosophy, Biff is a lost soul, like flotsam bobbing through life without direction or purpose.
As much as I love thrust stages, I think this worked to the production's disadvantage initially when most of the action takes place in the house set towards the back of the stage. However, the thrust was gradually brought into more use pushing the action into the heart of the audience and it was then that the play began to fly.
There are some laugh out loud moments in Death of a Salesman but this certainly isn't a comedy. You come out feeling a little battered and bruised by what has unfolded before you. Staging will be interesting when it transfers to the Noel Coward Theatre in May, if you can't catch it in Stratford then grab a ticket for its London run.
It is on in Stratford in rep until May 2 and then at the Noel Coward from May 9 to July 18 and is two hours and 30 minutes plus an interval.
* Henry IV is being revived as part of a special history cycle at the Barbican so if you missed it first time around, that and David Tennant's Richard II you'll get another chance to see it.
I've used Alex Hassell and Harriet Walter in connections before so I'm going for Antony Sher who was in Shakespeare in Love in which Judi Dench played Queen Elizabeth and she and Mr W have worked together on stage in Peter and Alice