Monday 30 March 2015

Death of a Salesman

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
28th March, 2015*
*Please note that this was a preview performance

Following the success of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge and the Old Vic’s The Crucible last year, Gregory Doran marks Arthur Miller’s centenary with his staging of, arguably, the playwright’s most celebrated play. This absorbing production plays with space and time, paying tribute to Miller’s original, fastidious directorial notes.

Salesman is remarkable for Miller’s strict stage directions, specifically the use of space in locating time and reality which is central to the understanding of Willy Loman’s tragedy. The trajectory through Willy’s idealised past and disillusioned present is fluid and greatly facilitated by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design and Tim Mitchell’s lighting. The contrast between the romanticised past and the suffocating present of the up-built city is spatially conveyed by vast billboard style apartment blocks, dwarfing the Loman’s tiny wooden house. The set changes giving an added sense of the bustling city as the running crew, dressed as city-dwellers, swiftly move pieces around amidst a heady steam issuing from subway grates. Constructed from translucent materials, the set works alongside subtle lighting changes in which the once solid presence of the surrounding tower blocks are transformed by a sun-dappled hue, almost disappearing as Willy transgresses, moving downstage into the free space accompanied by the symbolic pastoral flute leitmotif – the live music contributing a vibrancy that recordings cannot reproduce. Interactions and dialogue run seamlessly into one another just as the boundaries of the playing space are discarded during Willy’s transgressions. Distinctions between time and space are simultaneously hazy and clear; blurring the lines between time and space, a contradiction which highlights the melancholy and ultimately maddening contradictory and illusive nature of memory.

The performances are generally good; Harriet Walter as the loving, put-upon Linda, and Alex Hassell’s lost and conflicted Biff are among the standouts. Antony Sher gives an all encompassing performance as Willy, fluctuating between humour and pathos with ease, the measured rhythm of his speech allowing every syllable to be heard and considered. This is a play where no line or moment is superfluous, despite the apparent superfluity of the modern American salesman. The scenes within the Loman house are particularly absorbing in their intimacy, creating a feeling of being in the room with the characters, no mean feat in a large theatre. Moments where direction, performance, lighting and music all work beautifully together create points of lucidity, particularly towards the end of the play and the build up to the climax, proving that a decades old play, performed countless times over the years, still has the ability to move audiences.

Miller’s Salesman seems to be ingrained in the minds of many not only as a pinnacle of the modern tragic genre, but as a piece of contemporary American social commentary and, consequently, Doran’s production plays out exactly as one would expect, and want, such a classic to do so. Doran takes no risks with the material, save a slight shift in staging which the RST thrust stage needs must accommodate. The placing of Miller’s text at heart, being performed well by a reliable cast, is a very solid and respectable way to celebrate one hundred years of one of the great American dramatists.

Death of a Salesman plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 2nd May, 2015.

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