Noel Coward Theatre, London
Willy Loman is to 20th century drama what Lear is to classical theatre. A titanic figure, he’s one of Arthur Miller’s greatest tragic creations. An achingly desolate symbol of the American dream gone sour, he stands, like Lear, as one of the summits of an actor’s career. The little man who has given his all to a system that has ground him down, it’s a part that demands an enormous journey, like Lear, of the actor who takes him on.
And some titans have taken him on, from Frederic March (in the 1951 film version), to Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and most recently, the great, much missed Philip Seymour Hoffman whilst on this side of the Atlantic, unforgettably Warren Mitchell, Ken Stott and Alun Armstrong.
There is an undeniable Jewish undertow to Salesman and the character of Willy, the product of the American Depression and Miller’s own family as of the immigrant anxious to make good, to be liked. And survive. To raise a family and leave a mark.
Both Miller’s Dad and brother were salesman, his uncle running the circuit described so well in Salesman of New England, of Boston and Portland. There is the sense of undimmed possibility, of the archetypal salesman as the traveller with a suitcase and a ready smile. Willy’s optimism and belief in selling, his ability, he thinks, to be liked, and the contacts he has made are the things that have kept him going. That and a self-delusion that he has poured into his two sons with a mixture of hope and bullying.
As the collapsing giant, Warren Mitchell, stepping out from under the cockney patriarch and bigot, Alf Garnett in Jonny Speight’s tv hit, Till Death US Do Part, produced an extraordinary portrait of vulnerability that could as easily snarl, berate and dominate but also spoke of its root in immigrant insecurity. It was an amazing, utterly believable and moving transformation.
In Greg Doran’s acclaimed RSC revival, now transferred from Stratford to the West End, Antony Sher certainly has the measure of Willy’s hectoring, bullying ways. Like an ageing bull, he seems to lumber round Stephen Brimson Lewis’s New York Brooklyn staging with its tenement backdrop of outside staircases, stiff in limb and attitude. Beside him, Harriet Walter’s Linda conveys all the gaunt but staunch warmth of the endlessly self-sacrificing, pinny-dressed loyal wife.
`Attention must be paid to this man’, she instructs her two sons, Alex Hassell’s Biff, once a high-school sporting hero but now a Texan cowhand and Sam Marks’ Happy, by his own admission a womanising fantasist. Linda’s line is as affecting as any in modern drama as recognition due to the human being beneath any flailing failure.
Biff and Happy once looked up to their old man who now talks to himself and is steering off course in more ways than one.
Some sense of this psychological as well as physical disintegration should be apparent but is slow in coming in Sher’s portrayal in a play which uncomfortably slides between past and present but which Doran nimbly overcomes. Where Sher rises to the occasion is in the second half – a lacerating account of family chickens coming home to roost, of father and sons finally pummelling each other into truth-telling admission and of Biff making his father face up to the realities of who he is.
In a sense, Salesman has written into its DNA a discussion about identity; what makes us who we are? Willy, on the cusp of being forced out into retirement like a worn out old husk, is no longer quite sure who he is. Biff, touchingly, is able to confront his own limitations; Happy ultimately determines to pull himself together and making something of his life. And Linda? Money – the lack of it, making ends meet – runs as a seam throughout the play and Linda’s approach to life. At the end, with the mortgage finally paid off, she’s left with an empty house.
`We’re free and clean’, she keeps repeating like a mantra over Willy’s grave, a testament to a lifetime of his hard graft and her own devoted selflessness but abiding incomprehension.
Doran’s production is very fine in many respects. Yet despite the tumultuous issues so generously, compassionately explored by Miller, it’s a production to admire as if from afar without being able to surrender entirely to its enormity.
Death of a Salesman is at the Noel Coward Theatre, London to July 18, 2015
First published in Londongrip, May 2015