When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced that they were doing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman over Shakespeare’s birthday I was quite surprised. At the time I thought it was a very strange and potentially bad decision, and now, after seeing the show, I still think this, although I enjoyed the production a lot more than I expected too.
Having read Death of a Salesman before, I had a certain expectation. Miller is very exact in how the play should be staged and spends about a page and a half describing the set. It is very much designed to be staged in a proscenium arch theatre (i.e. with all the audience facing the stage), so I was really interested to see how it would transfer to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design is true to the text’s description yet still updates it. Action outside of the Loman house that would have taken place on the apron of a pros arch stage now happens on most of the thrust and there is even a small lift for set pieces and people to appear from. This makes a lot of the transitions very smooth and Gregory Doran makes good use of it.
Doran’s direction is very true to Miller’s words, though it is very often difficult to differentiate between what is present and what is a flashback. Though there are lighting changes (the play is lit very well by Tim Mitchell) and the majority of the flashbacks happen outside of the house, there were times I was questioning where we were in Willy’s timeline. However Doran paced the play well and paces each scene enough for them to grow and to evolve.
Antony Sher feels very slow in Act 1. Though Willy is tired and decreasing quite rapidly, his performance is a little slow and I felt the rest of the company were racing ahead of him. In the flashback scenes he played the same Willy as in the present day scenes. Whether this is intentional, as though we are seeing the past through Willy’s eyes or not, is unclear. However his performance is a lot stronger in Act 2 and there are scenes of real heartbreak which lead to his decrease in which Sher is amazing. You still see the characters decrease, but without thinking the actor himself it tired.
Alex Hassell and Sam Marks as Willy’s sons Biff and Happy make very compelling returns to the RST stage. The contrast between the two brothers is very clear and the difference between the characters in the present day and their younger selves is joyous. Hassell’s performance in Act 2 is second to none and the scenes in the hotel room and in the restaurant are heartbreaking.
However, for me the best performance of this production is from Harriet Walter as Linda. She is captivating and you feel a genuine sympathy for her. Walter is the standout element of this show and I felt that she wasn’t quite matched all the way through the play.
Whether nor not the Royal Shakespeare Company should be doing an Arthur Miller play over Shakespeare’s Birthday, and therefore not having any Shakespeare on over April 23rd is irrelevant. This is a very good production of one of the greatest American plays ever written, and although the main character gets off to a slow start, the company is strong and you leave the theatre having witnessed this wonderful play performed with heart.
Review by Elliott Wallis
Death of a Salesman is set in 1949 in Brooklyn, New York.
Willy Loman is a travelling salesman, nearing retirement. In the opening scene, he returns late at night, from a failed business trip. His devoted wife Linda worries about him, fearing he has crashed his car. Seeing that her husband is no longer able to travel, Linda suggests that Willy ask his boss, Howard, to let him work in the office in New York rather than travel.
Cast and Creative
Tobias Beer – Howard Wagner
Paul Birchard – Older Waiter
Helen Grady – Jenny
Ross Green – Stanley
Alex Hassell (pictured) – Biff Loman
Emma King – Miss Forsyth
Sam Marks – Happy Loman
Miranda Nolan – Letta
Sarah Parks – The Woman
Guy Paul – Uncle Ben
Joshua Richards – Charley
Brodie Ross – Bernard
Antony Sher – Willy Loman
Harriet Walter – Linda Loman
Director – Gregory Doran
Designer – Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting – Tim Mitchell
Music – Paul Englishby
Sound – Jonathan Ruddick
Tuesday 7th April 2015