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A CurtainUp London Review
Death of a Salesman
Deviating from Miller's original intentions, here the Loman family are not distinguishably Jewish, they are simply American with the dreams and ambitions fostered by the America Dream. The rejection of Willy Loman by the son of his old employer strikes even more of a chord today where youth culture dominates big companies. I found the play almost harrowing as we are forced to watch the decline of a man and the destruction of every one of his unrealised hopes. Willy's final scene is the ultimate self-delusion as Willy imagines that Biff will benefit from his life insurance.
What places Miller's play firmly in its historical context is the role of the salesman. The concept of this man who is , in Charley's words in the final scene, "He's a man way out there is the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory." Much of Willy's hero worship is for the 84 year old salesman whose his funeral was attended by hundreds of salesman and buyers. What Miller is telling us is that these travelling salesmen are already, in 1948, a thing of the past, as are the kind of businesses they sold to.
Brian Dennehy as the patriarch is stubborn, volatile, angry, often his own worst enemy and a bully towards long-suffering Linda. Dennehy commands the stage, his enormous presence dominates. Here he is often hunched with age, exhausted as Willy is, his thin arms sticking out from his shirt sleeves, his hands clawed. Willy's nostalgic revisiting of his youth is played out in revolving scenes, the narrative of which spin and trap him into the vortex of the present. We care what happens to Willy not because we love him but because we care about the people who love him. I found Clare Higgins' Linda deeply moving. She is an amazing actress who can convey deep emotion at a quiet almost minimal level and it is in her scenes that the play first compels. Linda spends much of the play appeasing and protecting Willy. She enjoys having both her boys at home but her delight is patent when, in the morning, Willy awakes refreshed from sleep and more cheerful. The life of a salesman's wife was one waiting for him to come home.
Douglas Henshall as Biff is the son who carries his father's dreams and disappointment and again we feel it is the high expectations Willy has for his son which have caused the problem. Douglas Henshall nicely plays the young Biff with a naivety and innocence of youth. Glowing with youth, wearing his 1930s sporting kit, he is the star footballer with so much promise. Biff seeks that which he can never have, an acknowledgement from his father of the reality of Biff's situation. Biff wins our admiration for facing up to the uncomfortable truth and the backing of every child who has been the subject of unbridled parental ambition. There are star moments too in the minor roles: the awkward look of embarrassment and desire to escape on the face of Howard Wagner (Steve Pickering) in his final interview with Willy where Howard betrays his father's old employee.
The costume conveys period well, coping with the transition from 1930s to 1940s with baggy plus fours and wide lapelled suits with loud ties. I liked the cacophony of traffic and brakes and jazz to convey the backdrop of the city. The revolving set too plays its part in smoothly coping with the many changes of scene called for, like the compartmentalised life Willy leads.
Death of a Salesman is set to grace the London stage for four months. Buy into it! LINKS to Curtain Up reviews of this production in New York
Death of a Salesman
You might also want to check out our Arthur Miller Page
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Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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