It seems pretty ridiculous when you think about it that I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, but it has just always seemed so canonical that there didn’t seem to be any real pressure to go. I mean, seeing a rarely produced Arthur Miller play, now that’s an event. But his most famous one? I’d studied it in high school, and, well, now that I think about it, it just didn’t seem to get produced all that much … anyway, so here I am, it’s 2015 and I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, so when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production was coming to the Noel Coward, I jumped right on buying a ticket, especially because I wanted to hit the sweet preview pricing. My reward was a £30 seat in the back of the Royal Circle which, while it did leave dents from my knees in my chest, gave me a fully unobstructed view of the stage and would have been perfect if I’d only been three inches shorter.
Normally I try to hide plot details from people in my reviews, but I’m not really going to do that this time – be warned: like Romeo and Juliet and Carmen, the details of Death of a Salesman are something I’m going to assume you’re familiar with, and I’ll talk about it all freely here. But before I do that, I’m going to share this bit of interval chatter between me and my co-viewer:
“Well, how about that? It’s pretty good, huh? But I wish you could see a version on Broadway.”
“Why would I want that?”
“Well, you know, so you could see all of the famous American actors.”
“Are these actors not famous? I don’t really know.”
“Well, yeah, Antony Sher, and I think Harriet Walter …”
“Look, I don’t need to see anybody else in this play. This cast is perfect. Biff is a little weird but it’s basically the way he’s written. I could not ask for a better production of this show. It’s the kind of thing that makes me thrilled to live in London, where I can see stuff like this, absolutely excellent realistic theater, every night. I can practically expect it. And yet still it’s a bit of a surprise when it’s all as good as this is. Now let’s sit down and watch Willy Loman fall apart.”
Right, off you go people who don’t know the plot.
Thirty years after I last dealt with this play, I’m amazed at both how timelessly its depiction of American values bears up, and how very much my emotional response to the characters’ voyages has changed. As a picture of America, Miller got it spot on in 1949 just as carelessly accurately as O’Neill did in Ah, Wilderness! – but I experience it differently now that I’ve become estranged from my country of birth. Americans’ focus on positivity, the lies people tell when life gets ugly, the materialism and shallowness – it blows me out of the water to see society so unchanged nearly seventy years later. But the vibrancy of the characters Miller created gleamed across the decades as well, and was well polished by the outstanding delivery the RSC’s troupe gave us. As a teenager, I found all of the characters detestable, much as Biff rejects his father for falling short of his moral standards: but as an adult, I can see the shortcomings of all of them through more forgiving eyes. The mother, Linda, whom I hated for being a doormat as well as being disloyal to her sons – now, as a woman near her age, I can see how outstanding her loyalty to her husband is: and with Harriet Walter in the role, I was able to believe, to the soles of my shoes, that Linda truly, deeply loved Willy, and that she understood that he was falling apart and needed her more than ever. The sons, Happy and Biff, well, I can see where Miller has tried to draw them in a way that we can see how their childhood has made them into the people they are today: but I now believe that Biff is a badly created character rather than a detestable human being. Both Biff and Happy treat their father repulsively, but Biff’s inability to get his own life in gear simply doesn’t have a believable basis per Miller’s writing. Alex Hassell gives it his best, but I can’t buy him because I can’t buy the character.
Willy Loman, though, wow, what a tour de force. On paper, reading Linda saying that he is “tired” didn’t work for me; but twenty five years of trying to make sure I have enough money for rent every month has made me blaze with sympathy for the horror of Willy being stuck back on commission and losing his salary – at 60. I’m also more familiar with the way aging affects the mind, and as I watched this man who’s spent his life shilling stockings try to make sense of why his life now seems like shit, well, I am seeing early onset dementia (especially in the Ben scenes) as well as stress. I used to hate Loman for cutting his wife off but I know see how he’s desperately grasping for any life preserver he can find, and his shushing is more to keep his focus than to show any dislike of Linda; and his relationship with his best friend (he seems abusive to him as well) now, once again, reeks of deep, unconditional love on the side of his best friend Charley, which was doubtlessly built over the years and thus is able to be sustained, on Charley’s side, in the face of Loman’s mental collapse – which is brilliantly, diamond-sharp brought to life by Anthony Sher. Every up and down, dream and delusion is made real: his mercurial outbursts, his scrabbling, his begging – it was a believable, absorbing journey from start to finish. I simply could not believe how damned good this play could be, but with a cast this fine, Miller’s tiny wobbles were simply wibbles. I loved it. I’m so glad I had an opportunity to see this definitive performance of this excellent play – I recommend it without reservation at any price level (provide you’re buying from the box office).
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on May 12th, 2015. It continues through July 18th.)