Death of a Salesman – Review

Antony Sher & Alex Hassell in Death Of A Salesman
Antony Sher & Alex Hassell in Death Of A Salesman. Images Ellie Kurttz.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Death Of A Salesman was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions created by playwright Arthur Miller that denounced the American Dream as nothing more than a fantasy.

Greg Doran hails the classic as the greatest ever US play and, in the centenary of Miller’s birth, it seems apt that the RSC’s artistic director should stage it at Stratford-upon-Avon with #Antony Sher, one of the UK’s greatest ever modern actors, at its heart.

Death Of A Salesman opened tonight with Sher as the eponymous salesman, Willy Loman.

He’s firing on all cylinders, giving one of his towering performances that dominates the play so entirely that it is hard for the remaining cast to make any impression.

The actor spends most of the play with a fixed and glazed expression as Loman suffers a meltdown of Lear-like intensity. He’s talking to himself and there are flashbacks to his early years.

We see his boys, Biff and Happy (Sam Marks), as teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them. Loman also asks for advice from his dead brother Ben (Guy Paul) who made a fortune in diamonds.

The mask increasingly slips as the character slides towards his own destruction.

Antony Sher in Death of a Salesman

Willy Loman has spent a lifetime travelling the length and breadth of America – and for what?

He’s 63 and all washed up. Loman is working for commission, derided by clients, belittled by the boss, and scratching around for pennies to pay the bills. He deludes himself that one day he and the boys will amount to something.

Every conversation is filled with hope and expectancy but here’s a man of complete insignificance.

Post-war America sold its people a pipe-dream that anything was possible. Work hard and you’ll reap enormous rewards. There was also a boom in both advertising and consumerism. It was great, aspirational, marketing that helped build a nation.

I don’t think England ever really took to the travelling salesman in the way they did in the USA. Since the country was founded men would turn up on doorsteps in every town and state, selling it all – from a new vacuum cleaner to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

It’s all Loman had ever known but it must have been soul-destroying work. In one emotional scene his wife Linda reveals that Willy sometimes did a 700-mile sales trip and not earn a cent.

Willy’s relationship with both sons is fraught but more so with Biff. Once the golden boy of high school football, his glittering future is wrecked following an incident involving his father.

He’s now 34, made a career out of drifting from one job to another, and admits to his brother that he is uncertain of what he’s supposed to do in life.

There are no heroes or happy outcomes to Death Of A Salesman. Miller’s greatest play is visceral, angry and bleak.

Aside from Sher’s larger-than-life portrayal of a man exhausted with life, there are winning performances from the splendid Harriet Walter as his desperate wife (though she struggles to get a word in edgeways without being slapped down by her husband) and Alex Hassell as the disillusioned and demoralised Biff.

Joshua Richards also gives solid support as Willy’s neighbour, Charley, whose job offers and advice are robustly rebutted by a still proud Loman.

Death Of A Salesman runs until May 2.

★★★★stars

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