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

Advertisements

Theatre Review: Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) in Phyllida Lloyd's Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. Credit: Helen Maybanks

Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) in Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. Credit: Helen Maybanks

If theatre – or anything for that matter – can be semi-immersive then Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV is just that. The Donmar Warehouse has been converted into a prison (not too much of a push considering its institutional architecture) for the duration of Lloyd’s all-female production and there’s some very theatrical security on show. You start the evening over the cobbled street at the grandly named Covent Garden Member’s Club (more grudgey than Groucho), before being frog-marched (in a fashion) to the Donmar, where you’re shown to your seats not by smiling ushers, but fierce looking prison guards.  

As fun as this was, I’m not sure this over-enthusiastic scene-setting really added anything to Lloyd’s excellent production of Henry IV besides further highlighting how much the director has ripped up the Shakespeare rule book. In this all-female production, Shakespeare’s tale of kings has been condensed into one play that’s being performed by the inmates of a women’s prison.  We are never told why these female prisoners chose to put on one of Shakespeare’s most masculine plays, but it’s not hard to see why a tale of bullying, ‘gangs’, violence and redemption may resonate with those accustomed to sleeping ‘in filthy hovels, stretched out on uncomfortable cots’.

This is more Henry IV Part 1 with the end of Part 2 tagged on. I enjoyed this edited highlights approach; while much is lost in the furious trimming, Lloyd’s production benefits by bringing the cracking key scenes into sharp relief – although Hal’s swift journey from boisterous barfly to worthy warrior and noble king was perhaps a little jarring.

The all-female cast are fantastic, everyone of them convincing as a Shakespeare character while never allowing their contemporary prisoner roles to be forgotten. Clare Dunn as an athletic, cocky Prince Hal was a great foil to the majestic Harriet Walter as the stern, guilt-wracked Henry IV, but it was Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff, a character I usually can’t stand, that I loved. Falstaff is, in the productions I’ve seen, played as a fat, jokey piss-take punch bag, which of course he is. But he’s also a horrid man – cowardly, lying, stealing, nasty, self-obsessed, his disregard for ‘honour’ essentially a reluctance to do anything that won’t further his own fortunes. McGuire brought out Falstaff’s nasty side, highlighting his pomposity rather than his good-time bravado. Maybe because Falstaff is the kind of man who is particularly repellent to women (witness his barbs to poor Mistress Quickly) that meant McGuire and Lloyd weren’t afraid to make him more than the play’s joker.

I usually find myself nodding in agreement when at the end of Part 2 Prince Hal (now Henry V) rejects Falstaff with a “I know ye not, old man”. But this time McGuire’s performance and her reaction to this betrayal as a female prisoner as well as a sack-swilling slob, sobbing while the guards tie her wrists with plastic wire, was genuinely moving.

There were the occasional well-positioned slips into the present day that increased the impact of the production, reminding us that we weren’t watching a straightforward play about  a monarch fighting for his kingdom and heir. Hearing Shakespeare’s posturing, masculine dialogue in the mouths of women with *gasp* regional accents stripped away the stuffiness that can strangle a Shakespeare production and their delivery and the staging served to accentuat how contemporary Shakespeare’s language can sound. When McGuire’s prison alter ego slips from character during the scene where Falstaff is hurling insults at Mistress Quickly and throws in a few choice words of her own, the distinction was barely noticeable.

Single gender Shakespeare productions, especially those set in the modern day , always run the risk of seemingly contrived, but Lloyd’s production brought out the emotional heart of the play while losing nothing of its original intensity.

For tickets and more information visit www.donmarwarehouse.com.