The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current season engages with all kinds of dramatic outsiders. Alongside Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice, Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Ben Jonson’s Volpone also lie in ostracism. Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman brings into this mix a more modern but equally resonant figure of isolation in Willy Loman.
The tide of the American dream has well and truly drowned Willy Loman
In Miller’s devastating portrayal, the tide of the American dream has well and truly drowned Willy Loman. For all his boasting of athletic and successful sons, Alex Hassell and Sam Marks as Biff and Happy present the disappointing reality as a duo of pyjama-clad despondency. Willy’s self-sacrificing wife Linda bears the brunt of his poorly paid job as well as the constant frustration of their underachieving brood. Her forbearance seems to be holding the family together, until Willy’s erratic behaviour unearths echoes of the past that threaten to disrupt the household’s already shaking foundations.
Salesman is a play full of echoes. Structurally, we flit between idyllic scenes of Biff’s hopeful adolescence only to return to Willy desperately begging a response from the voices in his head. The vivacious and devoted Biff, the overweight and awkward son-in-the-shadow Happy and the elusive Uncle Ben all haunt Willy Loman. These dynamic changes in theatrical pace are some of the play’s hardest to navigate, however, the company’s artful lighting and agile set kept transitions at once smooth and contrasted to devastating effect. As is expected from the RSC, the set and staging compliments the performances spectacularly. The Loman house sits onstage like a doll’s house cracked in two, parodying the play’s images of the American dream life. Commendation is also due to the company for being able to dance so confidently across the changes of dramatic tempo in these scenes.
A company like RSC, combined with the calibers of the artistic director Gregory Doran and the cast at the helm, I was hopeful for some impressive performances. Where this production truly excels is, suitably, where the play’s most powerful scenes come to life; in private, family relationships. A tragedian of the domestic, Miller’s Loman family have scene upon scene of hard-hitting dialogue, at which Walter, Hassell, Marks and Sher absolutely excelled. Where Willy’s relationship with his wife Linda can often seem uncomfortably fractious and volatile, Harriet Walter and Anthony Sher masterfully communicated an intimate sense of understanding alongside Willy’s crippling dependence on his saintly wife. These characters have a lifetime of history with each other, parts of which we see regurgitated through Willy’s rose-tinted memory. The beauty of the RSC’s production, particularly from veterans Sher and Walter and wonderfully from the young Hassell, is in the nuanced hints towards the history that is hidden from us.
The stage chemistry of Sher and Hassel proves this production’s greatest asset. Together they are a dramatic powerhouse
Straight off a West End run playing near-father-and-son figures Prince Hal and Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I & II, the stage chemistry of Sher and Hassel proves this production’s greatest asset. Together they are a dramatic powerhouse. The duo bulldoze through scenes between Willy and Biff Loman with a harrowing intensity that never threatens to dissolve the highly charged dialogue into melodrama. With Miller, this distinction is a fine line to tread.
The play itself tosses Willy Loman straight into a torrent of devastating introspection, challenging its actors with a fragmented structure and some of Miller’s most dramatically taxing interactions. What the RSC evoke within this production is the play’s force to close in upon Willy with the full brunt of complete isolation. Harrowing, powerful and even bitterly comic, Death of a Salesmen is the perfect requiem with which to birth a season filled with dramatic figures of alienation.