This review was updated at 4:12 p.m.
Attention must be paid, we’ve all heard till we’re blue in the face, but arguably no one has delivered Arthur Miller’s defining call to moral arms with the white heat of British thesp Clare Higgins. Anchoring the London preem of Robert Falls’ staging of “Death of a Salesman” now nearly 6 years old, Higgins joins Tony winner Brian Dennehy in ensuring yet further life for a masterwork whose qualities as requiem have only been redoubled since the author’s death earlier this year.
Even without Miller’s passing, “Salesman” would doubtless draw the British, even in a staging whose Anglo-American retinue isn’t always the equal of Higgins’ distaff lead. Although the tendency locally may be to segregate the eponymous salesman, Willy, as a specific American specimen and not the Everyman of Stateside lore, the play packs an equal West End punch to its impact five years ago on Broadway, with only the bruising Biff of Kevin Anderson sorely missed.
Falls was right to include more actors in the production’s transatlantic net than just Dennehy, whose power remains undimmed. From Howard Witt’s brilliantly casual turn as Charley (such Miller-isms as “dast” sound perfectly normal tripping from his silken-voiced sardonic tongue), to Steve Pickering as the boss who ultimately paves the suicidal path for Willy, Falls’ ensemble makes a necessary case for the casting in strength of the best American stagings, which are about more than just peddling star power.
That’s not to say anyone could feel shortchanged by Dennehy’s Loman, which looks set to enter the record books for the most perfs logged in this part. A large man who can be seen shrinking into himself as Falls’ expressionistic approach plays itself out, Dennehy re-evaluates this so-called “little boat looking for a safe harbor.” Simply put, he’s a galleon buffeted by the distressing gales that accompany the American dream.
En route to being fired by the very man whom he’s known since infancy, Dennehy’s Willy has a gleaming smile that exists at minimal remove from some dark gallows humor. “It takes so little to make (Willy) happy,” Higgins’ wrenching Linda tells younger son Biff (Douglas Henshall). But there’s a lot conspiring against Willy, who in Dennehy’s hands is a man-turned-boy waiting for a bruising.
There was talk early on that fellow Tony winner Elizabeth Franz might cross the Atlantic with Dennehy. Not to worry: Higgins delivers a startling performance that gives unconditional love a heretofore unknown power. The evening’s grim trajectory etched on her face from the start, Higgins could not be more animated in a potentially passive role, down to her mending of the stockings that so infuriates her husband. “What a woman,” says a Happy made unusually touching by Mark Bazeley, even if one has to wonder why, given that the play wastes no opportunity to have fun at the elder Loman son’s expense.
Their younger boy, the football-playing Biff, is this version’s huge misfire, and not just because vaguely paunchy Scottish thesp Henshall (“The Coast of Utopia”) would never be physically right for the role. Straining at the springy restlessness of a child who gets some of the most full-on confrontations in modern drama, Henshall has the vocal heft for the part without the amplitude to back it up. The play’s flashbacks, always tricky at the best of times, come off this go-round as doubly phony.
That’s unlikely to matter, however, to auds who will surely sit transfixed at the modern resonances of a play whose structural daring exists in direct contrast to the admittedly crude ennobling impulses of some of the language. “The jungle is dark but full of diamonds,” says Willy’s successful older brother, Ben (Allen Hamilton, superb). Much the same might be said of a production that pays attention, and more, to the admirable also-rans of this world, as if to honor Miller with a recognition that life’s Willy Lomans are struggling, striving, weeping still.