As the ‘American Dream’ turns increasingly sour, Joan Davies applauds a timely revival
Willy Loman, the American salesman of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, is approaching the end of his career. At 63 he’s about to make the final mortgage payment on the home he’s so proud of, the home he’s worked so hard to pay for and improve. Time, you would think, for him to relax, eat apple pie cooked by his loving wife, look forward to grandchildren, and take an occasional drive, living the fruits of the American Dream.
Not so. Retirement doesn’t appear in his immediate plans. He still needs to earn, and the ‘boys’ - brilliant Biff and apparently carefree Happy - are not quite settled.
The play opens with Willy returning home to his wife Linda, his sales trip having failed. It isn’t just that his sales figures are low, he can’t even make the drive out of town.
Gradually the facts that have been bubbling beneath the surface rise up to confirm Loman’s growing realisation: his greatest sale, his concept of himself, has been a sales pitch built more on wishes than reality; the product is found wanting, his life as a salesman is over and his dreams of the pride of watching his ‘boys’ succeed will be disappointed.
Miller’s skill gives us a set of characters we can believe in, a storyline about the future revealed through flashbacks, and flawed central characters; those flaws driven by self-respect, love of and ambition for family, harnessed by the world in which they live.
Sarah Francom’s direction and Leslie Travers’ design, using the round stage to post scenes and characters at the centre or periphery of the story, aid audience understanding of shifting time frames. A tree suspended above hints at the absence of nature in city life, in sales life.
Performances are mesmerising. Don Warrington returns to the Royal Exchange stage as Willy Loman with a powerful performance. His arrival onstage at the opening of the play signals a broken man, confused, forgetful, unable to drive a familiar route. For the duration of the play the audience will forgive him and feel his pain as he recognises, in fits and spurts, how reality has taken hold of his dream. Ashley Zhangazha, who a few days previously won the UK Theatre award for his role as Sky Masterson in the Royal Exchange’s Guys and Dolls, returns to the stage as son Biff. He’s a natural performing in the round and his scenes with Buom Tihngang as Happy and their father are electric. Maureen Beattie, anchoring the family and loyal throughout, brings a believable and solid determination.
Miller’s plays might be rather long for some modern tastes and, while this play could perhaps be shorter, it’s a timely revival. As America questions exactly what its dream is, who might achieve it, and who takes responsibility, Death of a Salesman brings a post-war play to today’s audience with striking relevance.
Death of a Salesman runs at The Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 17 November
Main images: Johan Persson