Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman, Noel Coward Theatre

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC's Death of a Salesman

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC’s Death of a Salesman

Now into its final week at London’s Noël Coward Theatre after transferring from Stratford-Upon-Avon in May, the RSC’s Death of a Salesman shows no sign of slowing down. The Gregory Doran-directed production is hugely powerful, a juggernaut of emotions and intensity with staggeringly good performances.

Arthur Miller’s tale of one man’s downfall at the hands of his own stubborn pride is a masterpiece of theatre, but one that requires a deft directorial hand and confident acting to pull off. Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, has been flogging stuff on the road in New England for 36 years and is dog tired. His small life isn’t big enough to contain his dreams and he starts hallucinating about the past, back to a time when his sons, Happy and Biff, were young and full of potential. He also re-visits the moment his successful – and now dead – brother Ben left New York to start a new life in Alaska – later Africa – and his ghostly form drifts into Willy’s head and onto the stage with a smarmy smugness.

Juggling the past and present in a theatre production isn’t easy, but Doran makes it look like it is, the ease with which Willy’s mind alerts in front of us is impressively seamless and the cast handle the jolts in time with a fluidity that takes us right into the heart of the story.

Willy is, of course, a frustrating character. On the brink of madness, he’s been dealt some fierce blows in his 63-years, but his downfall – like King Lear’s – is ultimately his stubborn pride in himself and his son Biff. That he isn’t able to live up to the man he projects to be is a key part in the downfall of the adolescent Biff, who goes from being a well liked teenager with potential to the 34-year-old man we see on stage – broken, bitter, confused. The Death of a Salesman is in many ways about the curse of being ordinary

Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman is really something special. He captures Loman’s madness, vulnerability, nativity and arrogance in a compelling performance. The always watchable Harriet Walter is exceptional as Linda, Willy’s long suffering wife whose patience is saintly yet steely. As with other Miller wives, Linda’s husband is her life; her strength is his – in many ways she’s the powerful figure in the house. I can’t imagine these Miller’s wives are easy roles to play without seeming meek and submissive, but there’s real strength in Walter’s performance. Alex Hassell as Biff is also a perfect mix of vulnerable, confused and angry. He is the only character who seeks the truth about himself and his family. He is as believable as the ‘hey, gee’ football playing 17-year-old as he is as the jobless kleptomaniac he becomes. Sam Marks as the younger son Happy manages to flesh out what is a deliberately a one-dimensional character – I even rather liked him.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set accentuates the gloomy claustrophobia of a Brooklyn before it was fashionable without it overwhelming. Although it would have had its work cut out to overshadow this powerhouse of a production.

Death of a Salesman | Noel Coward Theatre | Until 18 July 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

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Theatre Review: The Crucible, Old Vic

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic's The Crucible

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic’s The Crucible

Arthur Miller is having a bit of a moment on The Cut. Just as the gut-wrenching A View from the Bridge bows out in bloody fashion at The Young Vic, at the other end of the street, its more stately elder, The Old Vic reprises The Crucible, Miller’s tale of the Salem witch hunt.

The Crucible may just be my favourite Arthur Miller play. It’s a gem of a piece of drama – a cracking story with plenty of boo-hiss villains and honest country folk being merrily trampled by utterly nuts authority figures all told in Miller’s stylish dialogue. It’s dark and sinister, packed full of suffering, hypocrisy, bonnets and archaic speech (‘sit ye down’!).

A drama this good deserves a fantastic reprisal and this Old Vic Yaël Farber-directed production draws out the angst and the madness to deliver a play of brutal intensity.

The Crucible is, of course, Miller’s allegory for the McCarthy communist witch hunt in 1950s America, but even discounting this second layer the plot is a cracker. Nine months before the curtain rises to find Mary Warren rolling around on a bed, in the grips of a fever (which the locals have – easily – confused with being possessed by the devil) farmer John Proctor had an unfortunate rumble in the haybales with the family’s maid, Abigail Williams. While John and Abigail keep watch over the sick girl – not exactly the most romantic of situations – Abigail attempts to rekindle their former fling. Hurt by John’s rebuttal, Abigail, encouraged by her elders talk of the devil, seeks a revenge so deadly that it decimates the whole town of Salem. The rumours she starts legitimise the authorities to murder and these moralistic men are sent into increasing spirals of madness and power lust until the town of Salem lies derelict and smeared with the blood of its innocent population.

Incidentally, Salem in this production lies nearer to Manchester England than Massachusetts (a link to Lancashire’s own witch hunts?), which is probably more accurate considering it’s unlikely that these early settlers had already perfected an American accent in 1692.

John Proctor must be a fantastic role for an actor, he’s up there with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, crippled by a fatal flaw and only realising what he’s about to lose when it’s too late. Filling Proctor’s big clopping boots for this production is Spooks and Hobbit star Richard Armitage who is the big star draw here. Armitage has made a career of playing brooding, angst ridden men that never fall neatly on the side of either good or bad, and as Proctor he is called on to crank up the angst factor far beyond dwarf-range. If I were Yaël Farber I’d have him reign it in a little, especially towards the spine-tingling climax where the emotion gets a little lost in the shouting, but he gives a huge, powerful performance in what must be a taxing role both physically and emotionally.

As big a punch as Armitage gives, this is very much an ensemble piece with many fine performances. Fresh out stage school, Samantha Colley hugely impresses as Abigail Williams, Proctor and Salem’s downfall and one of literature’s great villains. Gosh Abigails’ bad – and so unrepentant! – and Colley plays her with that deflt innocence and malice that the part demands. In a cast of great depth, other standouts include Harry Attwell as Thomas Putnam, Anna Madeley as John’s long suffering wife Elizabeth and Jack Ellis as the ruthless Deputy Governor Danforth who could probably project his crystal clear diction across the river.

A few niggles: the Round (handily crucible shaped) may have many advantages, especially I should imagine if you’re on (in?) it, but the bowl-like shape of it means actors’ words can get a little lost in the stew of dialogue when you’re up in the Lilian Baylis. This was a preview I saw and I wouldn’t be surprise if they tightened the production up at little – at 3 hours 40 minutes you could fit two and a half performances of A View from the Bridge into it – and there were a few flabby scene-setting moments that look pretty but delivered little. That said, this is too good a production for you to notice how long you’ve been sat there (your knees may tell you otherwise).

Farber’s Crucible is pumped full of heart and passion (perhaps, at times, it cup runneth over with emotion) – and Miller’s great story is given a rapturous reprisal that’s almost matched in intensity by the ecstatic applause at the curtain call.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: A View from the Bridge, Young Vic

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in A View from the Bridge

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in A View from the Bridge

After a two week road trip in the American South in seemed apt (ish) to see two plays by US writers in my first week back. Apt-ish because the New York and Boston where the two plays I saw, Arthur Miller’s classic A View from the Bridge and David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 Good People, are respectively set are as far removed from Tennessee and Louisiana as London is from the Sahara.

But these punchy plays both contain universal themes that transcend state lines, international border and eras. In fact, despite the fifty odd years that separate the two plays, there are obvious – and in many cases depressing – similarities between the two; both are set in tough working-class urban neighbourhoods and both examine truth, choice, consequence and the complexities of right and wrong.

The Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge was the first post-holiday theatre trip. I have never been a huge Miller fan, his world have always felt too male-focused to resonate with me, the egos of the male characters dominate the page and the stage without – to my mind at least – the romanticism and the narcissistic female to blunt the machismo that Tennessee Williams had.

To further consolidate my opinion, I saw a production of A View from the Bridge a few years ago that was so stagnant that the ending came as a relief and served to put me off Miller for life. That is until I read reviews of the Young Vic’s production that were so glowing that Ivo van Hove’s production sounded life changing…

And it’s certainly changed my mind about Miller. A View from the Bridge is a physically and emotionally tough play and this production doesn’t flinch from the rawness in Miller’s script, an attitude reflected in the physiques of the three male leads. The production pulsates with masochismo, lust and a fateful sense of doom, amplified by the soothing, yet soaring Fauré’s Requiem that accompanies the more dramatic moments, while the stiller family face-offs are set to a hypnotic tick-tock which I couldn’t work out helped build the tension or distract from it.

Leading a superb cast is Mark Strong who is no stranger to playing the bad guy. But Eddie Carbone is a far more complex character than a black and white badie. He’s a deluded, ego-driven man blinded by self-importance and an obsession with his niece which sends him into a spiralling circle of madness. Eddie is an insufferable twit, of course, but he’s no pantomime villain, there’s a vulnerability and desperation to him that an actor needs to unearth from underneath the character’s blind fury, which Strong does with fearsome power.

During a performance, I like to watch, if I’m near enough to see their faces, the actors that aren’t at that moment speaking as they can often reveal more about that character in those quiet moments than when they’re in the spotlight. I could go back a second time and watch Strong the entire time – not to take anything away from the rest of the cast – but he glowers with an intensity that is intimidating, even on the back row. He fully deserves the line that lawyer and narrator Alfieri (Michael Gould) ascribes to him “but I will never forget how dark the room became when he looked at me; his eyes were like tunnels”.

Of course Eddie’s actions are legally right, but morally they are very suspect and ultimately devastating. I was hugely depressed by the thought that the immigration theme that this play – written in 1955 – tackles is still an issue. The line where Rodolfo (played brilliantly by Luke Norris), defending himself from Phoebe Fox’s childlike, but ferocious Catherine’s accusations that he wants to marry her purely for her papers dismisses the idea of America as some kind of Utopia; “It’s (America) so wonderful? “I want to be an American so I can work, that is the only wonder here – work!” resonates far too much in a world where UKIP exist.

As Ruth in Spooks Nicola Walker was called on to wobble her bottom lip many times while also maintaining a steeling reserve. As Beatrice, Eddie’s wife, she’s required to be the opposite – Bea is ostensibly tough, berating her niece for her innocence and naivety, when in reality Catherine is the strong one, the one who doesn’t let Eddie grind her down.

Van Hove’s slick direction injected some adrenaline into those final, frantic minutes, rather than shifting the action from the street to the police station and back again, he keeps the actors in the same place and has Alfieri read the stage directions so the play reaches a crescendo with a tension that’s almost physically uncomfortable.

And the ending, one most of the audience knows is coming, is brutal and moving and more than contributes to the idea that now would be a good time to buy shares in fake blood; London’s theatres are awash with it.

by Suzanne Elliott

Catch A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic until 7 June .