Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Attention must be paid…

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

Returning to see Death of a Salesman, last Friday evening, I was both intrigued to see if the production had evolved in any way, and a little concerned, I suppose, that nothing would actually have changed: that the flaws I had written about previously were still either present or had deepened. To be honest, I don’t know if they were, or had – because, simply by being seated in a different place (originally I had been at the back of the stalls, in the centre; this time, at the front of the circle, stage left), I gained an entirely different perspective: enhanced by being so much closer to the action – although I did feel, somehow, that there was more confidence expressed by the whole company: especially in the rhythm of the performance; the moments of intense, realistic, overlapping dialogue.

We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!

This meant, of course (along with having the captions directly in front of me – which, I have to say, with actors of the calibre of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, were mostly unnecessary), that facial expressions were much more apparent: and, if I left the RSC with any solid evidence of that evolution I sought, it was that Walter provided a masterclass in understated but perfectly nuanced emotion from beginning to end – the perfect foil to Sher’s agonized raging, injured bull. I felt immensely privileged to witness such subtlety (and was also immensely affected by it…).

Forgive me, dear, I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you.

This, though, introduces another problem with the production (transferring for a longer run – boo, hiss – at the Noel Coward Theatre, London): in that most of the interaction between Willy and Linda takes place in the family home – and, with, I felt, this time, increased intimacy; more frequent shared moments of obvious love between the two – and yet, this part of the set is hunkered back almost under the old proscenium arch: too far away, perhaps, from much of the audience. I therefore wondered – although accepting that revenues would have been eroded by the smaller audiences (and yet we could have been offered that “longer run”, here in Stratford, of course…) – if the production should have been put on in the Swan Theatre, instead?

The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks.

Despite its lack of comfort(s), I much prefer the Swan’s atmosphere, its acoustics, and its own inherent “intimacy”; and perhaps condensing the space for performance would lead to the increasing claustrophobia of Willy’s situation, his life, his house – “there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he made” – becoming more apparent? (As I stated before, I have no problem at all with other playwrights than Shakespeare being performed in the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre: but Death of a Salesman could almost be chamber drama.)

A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Over four days on – probably helped by Antony Sher’s immersive reading of his Falstaff diary, Year of the Fat Knight on Radio 4: when you suddenly realize that, whenever he is on stage, you never ever hear his ‘natural’ voice, such a great “character actor” is he… – there are certain lines which still ring in my ears; still bring me out in goose bumps (I was so tempted to use the word ‘horripilation’ – somehow it seems more apposite…). I therefore feel slightly short-changed by the move to London. But, I suppose (although the RSC risks being rechristened the “Royal Sher-speare Company”), we do have King Lear to look forward to, next year – although I will always compare any performance to Greg Hicks’ startling inhabitation of the rôle (with Kathryn Hunter’s similarly extraordinary Fool) in (what I still think of as) The Other Place, a few years ago.

Like a young god. Hercules – something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out – Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!

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