Timed to mark Arthur Miller’s centenary, “Death of a Salesman” proves grimly pertinent in austerity Britain. High school students are taught to see Willy Loman as a man chasing the American Dream, but, in the wake of a long, stubborn recession, Antony Sher makes him seem more like someone balancing just above the breadline. Director Gregory Doran needn’t stress the parallels in his typically traditional Royal Shakespeare Company production, rich with nuance but very nearly over-stewed. Today’s Britain is full of Willy Lomans.
With his income based on his dwindling commission, Willy can’t make ends meet. He’s forced to borrow $50 a week to get by, and drives further and further afield to get the sales that he used to — if he’s lucky. When he pleads to keep his position, even on a commission-only basis, he might as well be begging for the sort of zero-hour contract that’s on the rise in this country. Even though he’s close to completing a mortgage, with a newish, faulty refrigerator at home, Willy Loman nonetheless stands in for the working poor.
Sher shows the psychological strain of that precarious existence. The whole house seems sleepless: His wife Linda (Harriet Walter) sits staring in bed, his adult sons kvetching upstairs. From his first entrance, clammy and shellshocked, slurring his words, after almost crashing his car, Willy goes into a tailspin. It’s possible that he’s had an aneurism, hence the increasing signs of senility, as he grows irrational and irascible. “The population is getting out of control,” he growls, blaming others for his hardship.
In fact, it’s just age. Sher speaks slowly as if Willy’s unable to keep pace, and his irritating nasal voice has a slight gargle, like a refrigerator with a faulty fan belt. He’s a man in need of repair or replacement; too proud to consider retirement. Sher manages, somehow, to make himself shrink. His grey suit gets baggy at the elbows, his trousers clump at the ankles.
Sher’s talent has always been to see character not as a singular unit but as a tag-team of personality traits. Individuals are full of inconsistencies and Sher’s not just playing Willy Loman here, he’s playing several Willy Lomans at once.
He spends the play inflating and deflating, rallying then subsiding. The worst thing is that he knows he’s done for. He’ll snap out of a daze and catch himself, a senile and sinking old man. When his young boss asks snarkily after his mental health, Sher turns away and swallows the shame of it. Willy isn’t stupid. He’s self-deluded. It’s the only way he can hold onto hope or self-respect.
Because capitalism hasn’t changed — it’s just got faster, less caring and more aggressive — Miller’s play looks evergreen. Doran’s staging doesn’t. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design is exactly as the text describes, with one little house dwarfed by “towering, angular” tenements. Chez Loman is ghostly grey, almost invisible, much like Willy and his wife. It’s wood surrounded by red brick and metal. What it isn’t, however, is “a dream rising out of reality.”
“Death of a Salesman” saw Miller swerve into expressionism, sewing flashbacks and hallucinations into reality. Doran illustrates that, he just can’t harness the feeling. Colors shift behind the action, shrill jazz cuts across it, but the sequences never achieve the sensation of a headspin, only the image of it. The staging is too straightforward: memories downstage, phantasms coldly lit. Today’s theater has techniques for expressionism, but Doran ignores them. That looks willfully backwards — not to mention bland.
This isn’t lapel-grabbing theatre, but it is, like Sher’s performance, an extraordinarily full account of the play. Doran draws out its feminist edge particularly eloquently, with Walter’s subservient Linda almost taking the tragic spoils — but too meek and modest to do even that. She sees straight though her husband but would never say so and, when she mentions his suicide attempts to his sons, she lets out a small smile, half fond, half panicking. Beneath her black veil at his funeral, she’s faceless — nothing without him.
It’s a play about generational tension too, and Alex Hassell and Sam Marks work well as his sons. Hassell, in particular, is beautifully cast. Broad shouldered and square-jawed, he’s the spitting image of all-American success without the talent, inspiration or intelligence to match up; a cardboard cut-out of Captain America. Marks, meanwhile, catches the needy nastiness of a man making up for his mediocrity with minor sexual and social victories.
It might feel old-fashioned, even flat-footed at times; it might look and sound like every decent “Death of a Salesman” ever staged; but there’s plenty in Doran’s production and plenty more to reflect on afterwards.