There have been feistier Willy Lomans, and scrappier ones as well, Dustin Hoffman’s among them. But I doubt there’s ever been a more truly defeated Willy than Alun Armstrong’s in the new Royal National Theater revival of Arthur Miller’s play. In lesser hands, the exhaustion this Willy projects would serve to enervate the play. Instead, Armstrong’s heartbreaking portrait of cumulative despair turns the most thudding of modern classics into a prolonged lamentation. This is less a “Death of a Salesman” per se than it is a wounding examination of a man seen to be dying from our first glimpse of him.
That glimpse comes with Willy’s shuffling emergence across Fran Thompson’s turntable set, around which the items and mementos of Willy’s life are kept on view throughout (the bed containing his adulterous fling, Louise Jameson included). The central design image — and a none too subtle one it is — shows a tree severed from its roots, though it is Armstrong’s Willy, in fact, who looks truly blasted. With Rick Fisher’s expert lighting casting multiple shadows on the walls, this Willy seems dwarfed by the demands of a life whose satisfactions are as fleeting as Fisher’s ghostly illuminations. Having laid aside the brio with which he enlivened London’s “Les Miz” and “The Baker’s Wife, ” Armstrong presents a little man with an Everyman’s set of woes; he’s struggling for dignity amid a society that is swallowing him whole.
Affecting though the performance undeniably is, it does exact a price. It’s hard to believe so battered a husband and father could elicit such encomia — Biff (Mark Strong) calls him “a fine, troubled prince,” while Linda (Marjorie Yates) never stops sentimentalizing him. The effect is to make the remaining Lomans, Corey Johnson’s whore-mongering Happy among them, look as self-deluded in their way as Willy is in his, thereby heightening the irony of as earnest a dramatic template as the American theater knows.
Director David Thacker, though, is right to treat the piece as a sustained phantasmagoria, moving in and out of the protracted breakdown that has defined Willy’s life. The director stages Willy’s long speech to brother Ben (Ed Bishop) so that Willy stares the audience down, an idealized vision of postwar family life (Mom in an apron, carrying laundry; kids clutching footballs and college pennants) taking shape behind him. As he showed in his National Theater “Broken Glass,” Thacker is fully attuned to the fluidity of writing that can quickly clot, and it’s not his fault that the final graveyard scene seems as leaden as ever.
Unusually for Thacker, his cast is a decidedly mixed bag, starting with the starchy Yates, who elicits scant sympathy. The tall, balding Strong is so physically wrong for the jockish footballer Biff that it scarcely matters when he fails to rise to the primal confrontation with Willy that had John Malkovich reducing a Broadway audience to fearsome sobs a dozen years ago. Better are Colin Stinton as Howard Wagner, the boss who seals Willy’s fate — but not before he shows off his answering machine — and Shane Rimmer as the pragmatic Charley, who teaches Willy that nothing — not a shared past, not loyalty — has any meaning if it cannot be sold.
Indeed, it’s the play’s merciless attack on mercantilism, not to mention its acknowledgment of an American class system, that has always endeared “Death of a Salesman” to the British in particular. Still, even the most rabid Miller partisan must tire after a while of the constant aphorisms — “A man is not a piece of fruit,” “The world is an oyster but you don’t crack it open on a mattress,” “A man is not a bird to come and go in the springtime” — that sound like a new line of cryptic fortune cookies. But when Armstrong cries out, “I am not a dime a dozen; I’m Willy Loman,” he reaches beyond cliche toward tragic self-assertion. At such moments, the play justifies its reputation, even as it is here blessed with a leading actor who seems always to be advancing his.