Monday June 17, 2024


By Diana Simmonds
May 25 2024

DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Theatre Royal, 22 May-23 June 2024. Photography by Brett Boardman

The sunny-blond, freckle-faced imagery of the American Dream – happy families and cosy prosperity – was all-pervasive in pre- and post-war USA thanks to artist-illustrator Norman Rockwell and his fabled covers for the Saturday Evening Post. They depicted a kindly society believed in by millions yet which a generation of America’s finest playwrights entirely, if not consciously, repudiated.

If Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Tracy Letts or James Baldwin ever had a sense of anything but family and societal dysfunction, they rarely if ever wrote about it. And Arthur Miller was no exception.

First staged in 1949, to the dismay of Bridge & Tunnel theatregoers, Death of a Salesman is also the death of that Dream – any hardworking guy can get to be No.1 in his chosen field. Whatever that was, it would mean watching his boys polish the Packard on Saturday mornings while his wife hummed happily in a kitchen full of modern appliances. And if any line of work epitomised those aspirations and faith in the system, it was the salesman.

Willy Loman (Anthony LaPaglia) is a salesman, old school, motoring up and down New England, 50 weeks a year, with a suitcase full of wares in the boot. His health is failing though, and as the play opens his larger-than-life blustering demeanour visibly begins to deflate. He is bewildered as certainty begins to elude him along with the charm that used to carry him through.


At home, Linda (Alison Whyte) guards his ego, helps him with his slippers and, when their “boys” come home, does the same for them. Biff and Hap (Josh Helman and Ben O’Toole) are no longer boys however, and neither are they the successful men of their father’s blind insistence. Biff has been unable to settle into a respectable job since flunking maths and missing out on college. Hap is a junior clerical functionary: a lot more junior than he admits to and an obsessive skirt-chaser. Each Loman male is, in his own unacknowledged way, a failure. And Linda acknowledges it least of all.

Over the first hour, the roiling undercurrents of family life are played against the equally deep currents of 1950s America – made so much more poignantly ominous because we know what’s coming and the Lomans do not. This is captured with acuity in the setting (Dale Ferguson). Tubular kitchen chairs and two tables represent the home Willy has been proudly paying off for 25 years, and which Linda proudly maintains.

Looming over them are the shabby bleachers and press box of Ebbets Field, once legendary home of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. In reality, economics sent them to California and the stadium was razed for an apartment complex. Meanwhile, the rest of the company sit on the bleachers, closely observing like a mostly silent Greek Chorus.

And what a chorus it is. A wraith-like, commanding Anthony Phelan is Willy’s long-gone brother Ben who still haunts him with his mythic success when he “went into the jungle at 17 and came out at 21, rich!” As The Woman, Paula Arundell and her sinuous red gown are magnetic light and heat, yet it’s obvious she was not the only recipient of Willy’s packs of stockings (as Linda sat at home mending her own). Marco Chiappi is a solid niggling truth as Charley, Willy’s card-playing neighbour who knows him to a discomfiting degree. And as Bernard, Biff’s nerdy joke of a school friend who achieves everything Willy dreamed of for his boys, Tom Stokes is as fine as his well-cut suit.


And as the Loman brothers, Josh Helman and Ben O’Toole are outstanding in support of Anthony LaPaglia who is mesmerising as the tragic, foolish man who flew so high in his imagination only to realise too late that his wings were as illusory as his dreams. As the faithful, put-upon wife, Alison Whyte is simply superb in her deceptive fragility and hopeless strength. She too is enthralling.

Director Neil Armfield’s acutely detailed, nuanced production has each actor – including Aisha Adara, Elizabeth Blackmore, Simon Maiden and Grant Piro – glittering in their roles like polished gems fitting perfectly into place across three compelling hours. With lighting (Niklas Pajanti), sound design (David Tonion) and music (Alan John) adding layer upon layer of subtle meaning. This is a once-in-a-generation production of one of the great plays of the 20th century.



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