Death of a Salesman, RSC, Stratford upon Avon

salesman3ARTHUR Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is regarded by many as the finest American play of the 20th century, and its central character  Willy Loman as the greatest character in American theatre.

Gregory Doran’s new production, on the main stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (and transferring to the West End), underlines both those claims.

This is a story of the Great Ameri­can Dream, in a land of opportunities where everything is possible but, increasingly, expectations outstrip reality.

Willy has worked every day of his life to bring home the money and create an inheritance for his sons. In his youth he might have had the chance to emulate his elder brother and get rich out west, but he chose selling. Now his old contacts are gone and his essential confidence is ebbing away.

One spring day, as his eldest son Biff has returned from a labouring job on a Texas farm and his youngest is sleeping off another heavy night, the illusion disappears.
This astonishing play is told both in the present and in flashback, taking Willy from his little house surrounded by high-rise blocks into the swirl of the subway, the unforgiving office and back to glory days and days of hope.

There are moments of the play that make the audience laugh, recognition relaxing the tension. You work your whole life to pay off your mortgage and on the day you own your house, there’s no-one to live in it. The fledglings have flown … laughter.

Family phrases are repeated until you really KNOW these Lomans, and start to wonder if you are liked, or well liked.

Antony Sher, most recently seen as a rambunctious Falstaff, here inhabits Willy Loman in a mesmerisingly physical performance that swings perilously from bragadoccio to despair.

His loyal and loving wife Linda has been supporting Willy and his sons for decades, bolstering her men with a quiet determination that has had to ignore the harsh facts of their lives. Harriet Walter is constant and contained, a dependable rock at the same time as a willow whose leaves change direction and colour to reflect her husband’s mercurial needs.salesman2

Any successful production of Death of a Salesman must have two young men who can play ages 20 years apart, filled with testosterone hope and dull depression – these are the sons of Willy Loman, with all that entails.

Alex Hassell is the outdoor realist Biff and  Sam Marks the fantasist womaniser Happy, with the elegant Guy Paul as the ghostly Uncle Ben, whose own repeated brag of riches is a constant needle in Willy’s fragile self esteem.

There are a few tickets remaining for the Stratford run, and the play is transferring to the Noel Coward Theatre in London from 9th May.  It will be one of those productions that people talk about for years, so don’t be one of those to regret not seeing it.


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