DEATH OF A SALESMAN Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

GREATER THAN GREEK:  ATTENTION MUST BE PAID

The greatest plays keep their truth but strike you differently every time. I saw Arthur Miller’s masterpiece at twenty, then ten years ago was electrified by Brian Dennehy’s Willy Loman in London. Now comes a different emotional hit in Gregory Doran’s RSC production, with Antony Sher as the failing, suicidal hero.
Different, not because any one production is more faithful, but merely because of one’s own attrition, life and loss as decades tick by. “Everyone cries at the end” said a confident voice in the tea-bar beforehand. But for some of us the most wrenching, releasing moments are earlier, and we are finally just glad Willy is out of the terrible race. Ah, the beauty of theatre: quiet private revelations in a public space.
Still, when he says “I still feel kinda temporary about myself”, who – at any age – does not shiver a brief “yes..”? Thoreau’s spoke of “’lives of quiet desperation…men who go to the grave with the song still in them.” The strength of Sher’s performance is that for all his grouchy hopelessness and enslavement to the big-man myth, when he plants his carrot-seeds, exults in his DIY or sees the moon between the looming towers we hear the faint flutelike song within him.

Set in 1949 Brooklyn, it is famously a condemnation of the business ethic of the time, the dream of a big desk in a big office for a big man. Yet it buzzes with topicality: we too are a culture where everyone must sell to live, “riding on a smile and a shoeshine”. Loman ‘off-salary’ is effectively on a zero-hours contract. His troubled son Biff took a wrong turn when he flunked one exam, didn’t get to university and has never settled to a job. Everyone’s mortgaged, and children fail to launch: “Ya finally own it and there’s no-one to live in it”. Topical all the way.
But Miller sweeps wider, more grandly through the human endgame. Willy protests “I am well liked..” but alone with his wife Linda admits “People don’t seem to take to me..I’m fat and very foolish to look at”. Tubby and square, grainy and growling, Sher takes the early scenes slow and querulous, almost singsong, rising to intemperate Lear-like wrath and bouncing back to optimistic fatherhood during the flashbacks to earlier times with his boys – especially Biff the sports hero (Alex Hassell, changing age brilliantly). Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set is ingenious: lighting turns the towering new blocks transparent in memory or brings the pitiless rackety New York streets and offices forward. The ghostly figure of Uncle Ben (Guy Paul) wanders white-suited under an eerie light talking of Loman’s missed chances.

At the heart of it Harriet Walter is Linda, loving a small man who “can be just as exhausted as a great one” and to whom, in that immense central speech, she affirms “attention must be paid”. There are layers of effort and fear and love in every folding of her arms, every, heroic, desperate encouragement of Biff’s hopeless business plans. Anything to cheer Willy enough to live. His business unravelling is painful to watch: Tobias Beer gives us the restless young boss sacking him while playing with his new wire-recorder(more topicality – today it’d be an iWatch). Joshua Richards is heavily, solidly decent as the only friend, from whom Loman can hardly help.

The tragedy is greater than Greek, simply because he is no king, never was. “A man has got to add up to something” he cries. But with a roar of engines and sad thread of flutes (another wonderful Paul Englishby score) he is gone.

box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 2 May
Sponsored by Interbrand

rating  five    5 Meece Rating

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