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The cherry on Arthur Miller’s cake

A masterful new “Death of a Salesman”

Isabel Lloyd | May 14th 2015

Whatever realm it is that dead playwrights inhabit, right now there must be at least one up there smiling. Arthur Miller, the most profound of all stage analysts of the American dream, would be delighted enough with Ivo van Hove’s recent stripped-back production of “A View From the Bridge” in London, which threw out all the trappings of realism to lay bare the expressionistic power of Miller’s prose. Rarely was a returns queue more worth standing in. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Death of a Salesman”, which opened at the Noël Coward Theatre last night after a high-speed transfer from Stratford, will be the cherry on his heavenly cake.

Miller’s play is, on the face of it, a simple story. Over the course of a classically strict 24 hours, an ageing New York sales rep, whose “merchandise” is never exactly clarified but may include ladies’ stockings, finishes what has clearly been a long process of unravelling, and commits suicide. (No spoiler there; the clue is in the title.) But within that tight framework Miller roams across continents: the gap between what we want to be and who we are; the repetitive failures to connect which trap even the most loving families; the never-quite-attainable promises of capitalism; the old, American yearning for empty plains and the sun on your back coming up hard against apartment blocks, insurance payments and broken fan-belts.

Much of “Death of a Salesman” takes place, Miller once said, “inside Willy Loman’s head”. That’s a difficult place to find on stage, but despite the RSC’s regular mistake of spending too much money on the set, the director Gregory Doran manages adeptly the transitions between the shadowed claustrophobia of Loman’s reality and the sunlit uplands of his dreams. Loman himself, played here with atypical rectitude by Doran’s long-term partner, Anthony Sher, is a character constantly in transition—wriggling on the pin of failed optimism, flipping between rage and adoration, queasy humility and wounded pride. Sher is extraordinarily good at these changes—his face will suffuse with blood one moment, open and lift the next—and he doesn’t fall into the trap of grandstanding the big moments, but lets the words do the talking.

He’s superbly supported by Sam Marks and Alex Hassell as his failed sons, Happy and Biff—one a salesman-in-waiting hiding his insecurity by obsessively chasing women, the other a heartbreaking portrait of a man first buoyed then punctured by his father’s overweening love for him. But the evening belongs to Harriet Walter as Linda, Loman’s eternally suffering, eternally forgiving wife. Stiff and upright in her flowered housedress, her honesty never falters for a moment. When she berates her sons, with unseeing irony, for “letting down” their father, she’s at once loving, dignified and abuzz with a maternal impatience that any mother of sons will recognise. “What a woman! They broke the mould when they made her,” says Biff. He’s talking about his mother, but we’re thinking of Walter. 

Death of a Salesman Noël Coward, London, to July 18th

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