With a heartrending script that demonstrates deep understanding of both the human spirit and the capabilities of drama in drilling deep into that spirit (and which, after rereading earlier, left me crying quietly); as well as the capabilities of the stage – demonstrated through intensely detailed and specific directions (which Harriet Walter, who plays Linda, described, in this week’s Herald, as “totally waterproof and perfectly written”) – it is hard not to approach any production of Death of a Salesman wondering what (if any) new insights can be brought to it; or if the director has dared attempt to meddle with Miller’s genius, rather than building upon it (unlikely, of course, with Gregory Doran in charge – and which proved to be the case). Of course, with actors such as Walter and Antony Sher in the lead parts, it is also hard not to take your seat with greedy anticipation. (I had originally booked to see this in another month or so: but that greed – and impatience – got the best of me: and I managed to grab a ‘restricted view’ stalls seat for last night, at the last minute. However, it is early in the run; and I am still looking forward to a better view – not from the bridge, ahem, but the gallery – when I eagerly see the play again.)
Of course, Willy Loman – in many ways, like Lear: who Sher will play, on the same stage, next year (once he has grown back the beard to match his current moustache) – is a rôle many actors measure their careers by: and this was no disappointment. What marred the evening for me – as it did with both parts of Henry IV – was that not all the rest of the cast was of sufficient quality to support him: and I’m afraid I must pick out Alex Hassell (who played Prince Henry, and now plays the key part of son, Biff) as the main culprit. Next to the likes of Sher and Walter (and most of the remaining company), his acting looks less fluent; his accent less convincing. (The RSC proved with the awe-inspiring Oppenheimer that dependable American intonation can be a ‘non-issue’: so why choose actors who can’t reach such giddy heights? And, yes, I know there’s supposed to be the continuing father-son allegory that started with Falstaff and Hal – but does this really require the same actors? It’s a bit tenuous, anyway – and staging a play this wonderful on Shakespeare’s main stage does not need any excuse. Yes, it’s Miller’s centenary. Yes, it’s possibly his greatest play. And, yes, it stands up to anything that the Bard wrote. Nuff sed.)
Having gotten that slight grump out of the way, it is a great production, featuring some great performances (special call-outs to Sam Marks as Happy, and Tobias Beer as Howard Wagner); and Doran has to be praised for pacing it perfectly so early in its run. Not completely constrained by what he describes in the programme as “almost iconic stage directions”, the text is simply the starting point for a wonderful set from Stephen Brimson Lewis (translating his design from instructions based around the more common proscenium arch): which partners cleverly with the work of lighting designer Tim Mitchell – especially in merging into and out of what Miller described as the “strata” of Willy’s memories to form the “continuous present” at the heart of the play. Add in yet more period-perfect music by Paul Englishby – including the wonderful, rare choice of alto flute (played hauntingly by Andrew Isherwood) – and you have the perfect demonstration of the synergies which the RSC so excels at.
What I found enlightening were the frequent moments of humour that emerged, that can be so easily overstepped in a work of deep pathos; and that – certainly in simply reading the text – may not be readily apparent on pages filled with emotion, and, inevitably, tragedy. I have probably said this before: but it proves why performance (and a director’s insight) is necessary to understand a play – even though it is someone-else’s interpretation. Reading a novel brings words to life in a different way – even if you are then in control of the pictures you see.
How Sher (or any actor) copes with the amount of energy (and emotion) required to perform this day in, day out, I do not know – but his investment in the play (as with wearing Falstaff’s fat-suit) is obvious from the moment he appears on stage to the sad, but inescapable, moment he leaves. (“Shhh!”) The large cases of samples he carries, as he enters, he bears with Sisyphean resignation: as well as an understanding that they are his only method of providing for his family – a career he was once proud of. His family is his reward; his sons his legacy. That this is coupled with Walter’s pitch-perfect, sympathetic and stoic performance as Linda – demonstrating an undoubting love for her flawed husband – means that, whatever its flaws, this is a production that is (if you can get a ticket, of course) unmissable: and I am therefore looking forward to my return, just before the end of its short run.
The play finishes with a short Requiem. But it was only after I left the theatre, the drizzle freshening my tear-stained face, that I realized it was Good Friday. “We’re free… We’re free…”