Attention has certainly been paid to this impressive revival of what must be Arthur Miller's most popular work, which has entered the public psyche thanks to the compelling portrayal of domestic relations within the wider framework of the collapse of the 'American Dream'. Willy Loman, the Salesman of the title, is nearing the end of his career and continues to lie to both himself and his family about his success on the road and his optimism for the future. Through a mix of flashback and memory we see how he has pinned all of his hopes on his two boys, and how his strained relationship with them leads to the realisation that he is worth more dead to his family than he is alive.
The role of Willy is usually the lynchpin of any production, and Antony Sher certainly delivers a first rate performance, but to me it was Harriet Walter as his long suffering wife Linda that had the edge. As with any tragic hero, the effect they have on those around them provides the key to unlocking the character, and often the play as a whole, and this is a 'Salesman' that is told through her eyes. The role can sometimes verge on the hysterical, but Walter roots her with a stoic confidence that allows her to stand up for her husband in the first act against her own children, yet remain the true victim of the outcome as a devoted and supportive wife. She effortlessly manages the shifts in time and brings a much needed dose of subtlety to the writing for the men in her life to play against.
In the centenary of Arthur Miller's birth, the West End has presented three strikingly different productions of his most famous works with both the Old Vic's 'The Crucible' and The Young Vic's 'A View From The Bridge' going great lengths to reinterpret the classics for a modern day audience. Director Gregory Doran resists the temptation here to try and be in any way flashy, and instead presents a wholly traditional look at the play, and it's a move the pays off in dividends.
A stunning set by Stephen Brimson Lewis adds context without feeling overbearing, and pays full attention to Miller's specific descriptions of a house that is 'partially transparent' that has an 'air of dreams' clinging to it. This transparency aids Doran's direction to keep the memories and changes in place fluid, creating a strong sense of pace that continues to build throughout the two acts, which in many productions can often drag. At times we maybe felt a little distant from the top level bedroom of Biff and Happy, especially in the earlier scenes, and their dreams felt as far away from us as they did to the characters.
Sher plays Loman with a suitable level of desperation that takes a while to settle into. At first his mannered speech and movement appears too cold and deliberate, but he thrives in the later scenes as his desperation rises to the forefront. Alex Hassell as Biff, the son which Loman pins all of his hope upon, gives an outstanding performance that manages to get to the core of the relationship and is equally matched by Sam Marks' lighter Happy - whose rejection of his own father provides one of the strongest moments of the play.
There is no denying the importance of this play within the context of modern American drama and it remains as powerful and relevant as ever before. Loman's speech about foreigners 'stealing' jobs and the futile life cycle of working too late into life and being in a race with the scrapyard kicks up many modern debates that anchor the tragedy in the here and now. What Doran's production most successfully shows is that this is not just a play that concerns the death of the American Dream in post-war Brooklyn, but it also speaks strongly to the an audience in London today, and it is that attention that makes this a near-definitive revival.
"Antony Sher gives the performance of his career ."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph (reviewed in Stratford)
"Gregory Doran’s Arthur Miller production skilfully contrasts a bitter old man with his dapper younger self, as Harriet Walter touchingly reveals his loyal wife’s pain."
Michael Billington for The Guardian (reviewed in Stratford)
"What Gregory Doran’s production captures so well is the wrenching cycle of false hope and disappointment that powers the Loman household."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard