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Photo by Prudence Upton

Death of a Salesman

Sydney Theatre Company presents DEATH OF A SALESMAN, by Arthur Miller, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd The Rocks, 3rd December to 22 December, 2021.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN, written by Arthur Miller in 1948, produced in 1949, tells the story of an ordinary American family: the Loman family. Father/husband Willy (Jacek Koman), Mother/wife Linda (Helen Thomson), Sons Biff (Josh McConville) and Happy (Callan Colley). Biff is 34 and has returned home to Brooklyn, after an adventure in the cowboy world of the horse for dog meat Misfits, in a dilemma of disillusionment, seeking confession with his socially degraded brother before confronting his father with a shared secret that has eaten up half of his life, that will devastate his mother and push Willy to a decision that is at once criminal and yet, possibly, a salvation.

This is the story of an ordinary family that has lived through the war to end all wars: the First World War, then the monetary boom of the Jazz Age of the false hope of the possibility of the American Dream, busting in the stock market crash of 1929 and flattening out through almost a decade of what is called The Great Depression, a time of cruelty and terror, rescued by the industry of another great war with a cynical cause of optimism for saving the world, concluding with the exploding of two Atomic bombs to demonstrate power leading to the bleak cold war politics of fear rustled up by their President Harry F. Truman who had a finger not far from the next button, the Nuclear Button. Why is the bland domesticity of the Loman family find itself on the edge of a tremulous emotional abyss? Because History will out. Terror, fear, cynicism, greed, poverty, distress and depression. Depression that leads to the act of Suicide. And, oh, this is a family of Jewish immigrant origin.

Does not this play reverberate for us in its titanic truth telling, whilst sitting in a token of good citizenship, the Roslyn Packer Theatre, during an enduring pandemic? Is not the Loman family a fair representative of families I know, today? My own family, perhaps? Sitting on the edge of another tremulous abyss?

This is why DEATH OF A SALESMAN is regarded as a Great Classic play. The ONE of the 20th Century, I say. And, this is why we get to see it revived in our theatre spaces time and time again, Nationally and Internationally.

This is not my first encounter with the Loman family. There have been many, many others.

Christopher Bigsby, an academic devoted to the study of Miller/s work recorded Miller saying in his book of conversations ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY(1990):

All these years later I see a play of mine that I wrote thirty-five years ago, and I see that the audience is screwed into it in the way that they were in the first place, I like to believe that the feeling they have is that man is worth something. That you care that much about him is a miracle, I mean considering the numbers of ourselves that we have destroyed in the last century. I think art imputes value to human beings  and if I did that  it would be the most pleasant thought I could depart with, apart from the fact that it entertains people, keeps them amused for a while. If I left behind that much value, it would be great. I have a weakness for actors and when they are transformed, or seem to be, by something I wrote, it’s a miracle to me. When they become somebody I imagined it moves me very much. I guess the other thing is the wonder of it all, that I’m still here, that so much of it did work, that the people are so open to it, and that we sort of clasped hands somehow, in many places and many languages. It gives me a glimpse of the idea that there is one humanity, there’s just one homo sapiens. Underneath all the different etiquette and the incomprehensible languages we are one. And I think it is a sort of miracle. What does a writer want? He wants to have left his thumbprint on the world. (That sounds like Willy Loman.) That’s right. Who does not want that?

So it seemed, last night in 2021, that the audience was “screwed into it … ” Time, almost 3 hours flew past, for some. This play still holds its thrall on an audience. Even one as far away as Sydney, 71 years after its first performance.

This was, probably, my tenth experience of Willy Loman. I, sitting in my seat, remembered my first : Ben Gabriel at the Old Parade Theatre for the Old Tote Theatre Company. He was the described small man Miller had wanted. I’ve seen more statuesque individuals give the work, and it works best when Willy is a feisty, diminutive individual. I’ve seen Warren Mitchell give it at the Seymour Centre, and of course the filmed version with Dustin Hoffman, a small but robustly dynamic figure (both, much admired by Arthur Miller), and last night when Jacek Koman exhaustedly entered to lay down his bags and remove his coat to begin the marathon journey of Willy Loman, we saw a small man that was to be writ large.

The Director, Paige Rattray, has presented with a Set design by David Fleischer, with an open curtain to allow us to digest the picture : a striking image of a huge architectural art piece that has a decaying proscenium arch, slightly off-centred, upstage, flanked by a towering set of ware house windows that reveal a ‘warehouse’ wall of bricks; to our left a height exaggerated white doorway surrounded by drab green coloured walls, with a five pronged chandelier of period bulb design hanging from the roof, as if of a period dance hall; an abandoned white refrigerator, a card-sized table and a few chairs litter the space as the audience gathers it self together. It is a puzzle to solve. Where are we? What does this image mean?

Enter, when all is ready, a group of actors dressed in costume of the late nineteen forties manner, organised by Teresa Negroponte, to have a figure called The Woman (Brigid Zengeni) make verbal selection of Arthur Miller’s description of the Set Design he had imagined. Our imaginations are asked to imaginatively produce the time and place of the actual play via the verbal descriptive recitation inside a vastly looming real image that, in my case, defied understanding. It seemed to be a grandiose solution! Why not build Mr Miller’s solution? As an old actor, I fumed at the STC Budget costs for such a design – which is the usual artistic solution that Mr Fleischer presents: an expensive Art piece that gives little aid to the explication of the play for us plebs sitting in the auditorium whatever the patricians, he and Ms Rattray, know of its intention and symbols. The waste was exampled in the gigantic chandelier hanging from the roof, which was only once functionally lit, for the curtain call, and at no other time in the playing. An arrogant gesture of gratuitous design. Cost? Mr Fleischer’s work on Terrence Rattigan’s THE DEEP BLUE SEA was also an expensive, curious and useless solution to the demands of that play. Beautiful? Perhaps. USEFUL TO THE STORYTELLING? NO! It was extremely informative to see the Design solution that the National Theatre in London employed to present a contemporary read of the same play. Throw Mr Fleischer, the designer, into the Museum of Contemporary Art with his images, and employ some more actors, with the money saved, for God’s sake!

Jacek Koman is fully informed of the opportunity of this iconic role, and there is an actor’s intelligence of selection at work and the physical life of the character is vividly impressive throughout the night, peaking in his growing madness of helpless depression, in the night club scene. In quiet moments his vocal efforts can be intelligible, but in moments of emotional demand the injured raspy voice grates – is ugly and jarring –  and obfuscates the content of the line, and any musical pleasure in presenting the lyric prose/poetry of the writing. The performance is physically masterful, undermined in its achievement by a vocally inadequate sound. It is the Physical life that burns indelibly in my memory of Mr Koman’s Willy. However, Mr Miller wrote in a form of prose/poetry, honed with this work to a perfection, and such that it becomes a hallmark of all his subsequent work – each text scripted with a craftman’s exquisite pain – an achievement that is not possible to hear here. Here, Mr Koman reveals a mis-casting by Ms Rattray. His voice is an injured instrument. Willy requires an actor that can ‘sing’, subtly, with the beauty of the English language, to reveal the text. You will understand what I mean when you listen to the cadent beauty of Philip Quast’s musical sensibilities as Ben, in this production, using an instrument that is primed to deliver content whilst simultaneously revealing the beauties of the sound of the English language shaped by a major mid-century American poet. Miller has picked up the baton from Odets, O’Neill, which he passed to Albee, and then onto Shepard.

The original title of the play was THE INSIDE OF HIS HEAD, the play conceived as taking place in Willy’s head, conjured on this desperate night of reckoning, conjuring the other figures to help him justify his determinations. Willy draws the Biff he needs and the crisis that brings Biff home is the catalyst that organises Biff to an agonising climatic confrontation, in the third act of the play, with his father that is resolved in the revelation that Biff LOVES his father. It is what Willy needs, conjures : the revelation that gives Willy a confirmed sense of worth despite his failings that ushers him to his final sacrifice to provide for his wife and son(s). So, he hopes!

Josh McConville creates a Biff that cries like a baby, at the age of 17, at the event of his discovery of his father’s fallibility and betrayal of his mother, Linda, in the highway motel, that festers into a disease of awkwardness after a brooding on it for a further 17 years to a volcanic eruption of grief and rage in that climatic scene between father and son. McConville exploded into physical expression that had the bravura of an actor rather than the passions of the character in the given circumstances offered, it was as if the physical gestures of the actor were being pumped to generate the emotional force, instead of using the considered intellectual emotional construct in the information of the text – to which he should be listening, vibrating from. These moments, towards the end of the play, undermined  Mr McConville’s wonderful choices of frustration we saw in the nightclub scene and caused me to withhold my full admiration of his passionate fury.

Whereas, Callan Colley gives a marvellous controlled muscularity to his lunkheaded Happy determined for mediocrity when his youthful bloom begins to set – the arc of Mr Colley’s work was consistent and buried in the character/man he was charged to bring to life. The work felt full and deliberately purposeful, beat by beat.

Helen Thomson creates her Linda from a place of exhausted empathy imbued with the effort of holding her world together, as it is her duty to do. Miller gives this woman no feisty objection but instead a saintly devotion to her allotted role in this family of masculine demands.  Washing, cleaning, repairing, making do, anticipating her men and offering advice, begging for change. Linda is part of the memory, vision, that Miller has with all his Mother roles, taking, as a poet does, from the three dimensional construct of his own mother, revealed to us in his magnificent autobiography TIMEBENDS, so that he can employ the poetic licence of selection to suit his artistic purposes. From his knowledge of his mother Augusta, Linda becomes the Good Woman of this play, as the Mother is as ROSE in THE AMERICAN CLOCK, and not as the Mother figure in AFTER THE FALL, for instance. It is a praiseworthy performance from Ms Thomson until we come to the all important and hotly (historically) debated Epilogue : the scene at the graveside. It was Arthur Miller’s insistence that the scene remained in the first production. In the published text for all consequent productions.

Says Miller to Christopher Bigsby

The key (to the play) is in the requiem at the end, which everybody wanted me to cut out. They said the audience were never going to stay there because Willy Loman is dead; there’s nothing to say. Of course they did want to stay there, just as you do want to go to a funeral. And what  is the point of a funeral? You want to think over the life of the departed and it’s in there, really, that it’s nailed down : he won’t accept this life.

The difficulty for Ms Thompson is the indecisive staging of the scene, by Ms Rattray. Unfortunately, the gathering is spread, initially, upstage and gives the actors obstacles to prevent a muffling of the dialogue and, similarly, when the circle is brought closer downstage around the seated, on the floor, Linda Loman. The scene is rushed and the sense of the word by word importance of the contribution of each speaker and, as importantly, the active listening, the attention that must be paid to what is happening, the conscious construct by the play’s writer, for the audience to pick up the clues of the subtext, was not made meaningful. Instead of this scene being the climax of Mr Miller’s intention it seemed to be treated as an unnecessary adjunct to the play.  A play, any of Mr Miller’s plays particularly, do not ever finish until the final point of syntax is expressed: that famous full stop. The casual staging and direction of  the Epilogue dispersed the focus and reduced the opportunity for the story of Mrs Linda Loman to truly count. She is the last one standing. Is it, therefore, her play? Is the death of this salesman Willy her tragedy? Her playing arc for the audience to embrace finishes with the final full stop. In Mr Miller’s life, as his autobiography testify’s, his mother counted. Linda in the daily sacrifice of herself as the wife to Willy Loman, and mother to Biff and Happy, always knew that Willy could never accept his life. She knew this and she knew it was the inheritance that her boys would be forced to live with and out.  All that she has left at the end of the play is the materialistic gain of the decaying house. Her husband dead, her boys ruined, that house is all she has left of the promises of the American dream. The irony of her  line to be, at last, “Free and Clear”, repeated twice, is a punch to our gut. Ms Thomson’s Linda under the direction of the scene by Ms Rattray is unable to make a satisfactory conclusion to her story. The epilogue we see is sentimental and lacking in the objectivity of the ruthless eye of Miller as he strips Linda bare and bereft in the aftermath of Willy’s actions. She sits in the crucible having her ‘fat’ burnt away, and we are meant to watch and feel her terrors just as in a later play, THE CRUCIBLE, John Proctor, is shorn of all of his delusions and stands near naked with all his strengths and weaknesses revealed.

(By the way, FREE AND CLEAR, was also once considered a possible title to this play.)

Bruce Spence as cousin Charlie gives a measured and masterful construct to a role that floats between the naturalism of the period writing style and the Miller experimentation with the surreal tendencies of Eugene O’Neill and some of the more interesting European writers of the time (Eugene O’Neill, Miller and especially Edward Albee and then Sam Shepard outriders of the mainstream American dramatic literature style?). Later, Mr Spence blots his contribution with a set of gratuitous choices as a drunken waiter, even to his elbow slipping on the curve of the refrigerator door, gaining laughs but undermining his integrity of choice.

Philip Quast takes on the role of Ben, a huge and dynamic construct of Willy’s mind, a giant of a figure ‘sailing’ across the stage in white suit, panama hat and umbrella, cane, declaiming in an ultra poetic/prose of journeys to the fabulous wealth of Alaska and Africa. Mr Quast meticulous in his handling of his text making a delicious moment in managing to reveal  the internal rhyme of AlaskA and AfricA wittily exaggerating Willy’s dreamy delusion of what is a successful life. The exaggerations conjured by Willy a tragic exposition of his state of mind on this precarious night in the Loman house is manifested in Mr Quast’s performance. (His song and dance act, introducing the Nightclub scene, is not his fault and is not part of Arthur Miller’s plan!).

Other members of the cast provide function to the machinations of the play’s wheels if not always making impressions of considered understanding of Miller’s dramaturgical intention for their presence on the stage in their scene. Little intellectual interrogation, I thought. Vulgar comic opportunism instead. The nightclub scene for instance begins in Ms Rattray’s production with a vulgar musical interpolation to the text as something “delightful, delicious” via Cole Porter, instead of the tragic loosening of Willy’s mind – the two  louche women played for vulgar laughs instead of the ghost train conjuring of Willy’s mental breakdown – so that the scene becomes a diversion of comic release rather than the cruel, deliberate dismembering of our ‘hero’s’ state of mind – “in my own head.” Instead of forcing the audience to brace itself into the gradual, tragic burning away of Willy’s self in the crucible of the action of the play, Ms Rattray provides a comic distraction as if the play was merely a series of vaudeville sketches, with a dark ending!

I could go on and on in this deconstruct forever.

The play, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, is a 5 Star rating.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN is a 2 star bust.

It begins with that design by Mr Fleischer, which has nothing much to do to reveal the actual action of the play (where his grandiose chandelier is lit only in the curtain call), through to a poverty in the interrogation of all the elements of every scene by the Director and the actors in them. This maybe my tenth production and so, in my experience, this production has the same function as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare for Shakespeare – a cursory introduction to Arthur Miller’s work simplified for easy digestion if not always an accurate exposition of the actual play.

That the Sydney Theatre Company continues to produce work of such interrogative poverty is indeed a tragedy for Arthur Miller’s reputation and for the quality of theatre going in this city/this country. Thank God for the regular National Theatre Broadcast in our local cinemas that show us why the plays  are in their repertoire – old or brand new – and deserve to be seen.

Every time I see an NT production I count the number of actors on the stage and weep for the Australian actor’s opportunities on their main stages. Hire more actors. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, about to have its second showing in Sydney and a tour, has ONE actor, and TWELVE technicians onstage to assist her – “wtf”, as they say. Our actors have been mostly unemployed for 18 months -2 years. While the administration of this leading company took home pay every single day of the disaster. EMPLOY SOME MORE ACTORS. Save money with simpler, economic design!