Alice Evans is generally impressed by ‘Death of a Salesman’, but suggests that the actors try not to break character when they forget their lines…
Death of a Salesman, published and first performed in 1949 by Arthur Miller, tells the story of a dysfunctional and degenerate family on the road to disaster. Willy Loman, who has been a salesman all of his life, is convinced he is still “well-liked”, despite the fact that younger and better businessmen laugh behind his back. Having been performed on Broadway thousands of times, there is pressure for an adaptation to be done well. But did the Freshers rise to the challenge?
Firstly, I was impressed by the staging. Arthur Miller is known for his extensively detailed stage directions, and the cast and crew refused to let this intimidate them. Three rooms were squeezed onto the Assembly Rooms stage, as well as a front yard-cum-restaurant-cum-office that covered downstage. The audience, as witnesses to this uncomfortable lack of space, were able to appreciate Biff’s trapped feelings, and Willy’s rising distress, in an intensely claustrophobic domestic atmosphere.
Linda (Isabelle Culkin) and Willy (George Breare) provided good senses of characterisation from the first scene. The unbreakable devotion Linda has to Willy was quickly established and maintained throughout the play. Crisper diction from Willy would have improved what was overall a good performance. Isabelle Culkin improved as the action advanced.
The energy levels soared as Biff (Adam Simpson) and Happy (William Hanway) entered the action. Biff’s oscillations between hope and despair were displayed brilliantly. Happy is frequently considered a rather two-dimensional character, but William Hanway brought something unique and touching to the role. Adam Simpson wins best performance, though; the emotional climax of the play, when Biff finds out that Willy is having an affair, was expertly acted.
To give every cast member credit, there was a good fast pace to the script that maintained the momentum throughout. It’s a difficult script to master, due to Miller’s tendency to give his characters repetitive, circulating conversations. The restaurant scene between Biff, Happy and Willy had particular grit, with an intense sense of frustration when Biff’s words are twisted and a complete breakdown of communication between the characters occurs.
There were a few disappointing moments, though, where the pace owned the actors rather than the actors owning the pace: George Breare forgot his lines on five occasions, which would not have been noticeable due to the excellent improvisation of his fellow actors. But Breare unfortunately jeopardised the atmosphere of crucial scenes by coming out of character and asking for a prompt. Forgetting lines isn’t a crime, but coming out of character when those around you are doing a great job to help you out is unprofessional. Overall though, credit must go to Breare, because, as director of the play, he stepped in to play the part of Willy when somebody else dropped out of the role. It’s exceedingly difficult to direct as well as perform, and this achievement cannot go without acknowledgement for Breare.
The lighting was effective throughout, with nice touches such as spotlights on the characters in Willy’s flashbacks. This made it clear, even to audience members who were unfamiliar with the play, that only Willy could see these characters. This allowed the audience to feel a sympathetic understanding for Willy’s confusion that transcended the understanding he received from his family. The sound was also good, the eerie pre-recorded laughter of the woman adding an ethereal detached quality to Willy’s degenerative mind. He certainly was “a little boat looking for a harbour”. The music was well suited and well placed, and the ear-splitting car crash in the final moments of the play was suitably shocking.
The decision to cut the Requiem and end instead on the dramatic car crash was a clever piece of direction. Another nice touch was that although Linda lets out an anguished cry, it is Biff who has the final outcry; showing that ultimately, the father-son conflict surpasses the husband-wife one.
Overall, “attention must be paid” to this production. It captures the anxieties of Miller’s common man in a bewildering, consumerist world. It depicts the dangers of not being true to oneself, and shows the destructive false optimism by which many 1950s Americans lived out their days. This was a promising start to a three day run, and an enjoyable autumn evening on the Bailey.
Photograph: Juliano Henrique