Review: Death of a Salesman, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“Certain men just don’t get started ‘til later in life”

To criticise an RSC production of being traditional seems a little bit beside the point, especially under this artistic directorship, but that’s how I felt on leaving this production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It is undoubtedly impressive but it rarely feel inspired, it just doesn’t do enough to convince that the sobriquet “greatest American play of the 20th century” (as Doran labels it in the programme) is well-deserved, especially in the light of such revelatory work being done on one of Miller’s other plays even as we speak.

Antony Sher’s Willy Loman, the American Dreamer who never quite gets there, has been done in by life. Business as a travelling salesman has dried up, his older son has severely disappointed him and ghosts of the past plague his mind so virulently that they seem real. Miller weaves in scenes of the Lomans’ past most ingeniously into Willy’s current day affairs but though Sher gives us all of the abrasiveness of a frustrated would-be patriarch, his performance lacks the psychological intensity to really pull you into his thought processes. 

Harriet Walter’s portrayal of Linda actually emerges the stronger. In the face of disinterest from both Miller, for a dynastic epic, her character is unforgivably sidelined, and from Doran/Sher who make precious little attempt to show us even a hint of what might have made her devotion to the Lomans’ marriage endure so long, Walter brings forth an innate integrity that makes her an essential presence throughout. The measured precision of her movement, even on the sidelines, never lets us forget how deeply she feels each twist of the family’s torments.

Sam Marks and Alex Hassell have a trickier job as their sons, playing not only the comparative disillusionment of their adult selves but the fizzing exuberance of their younger years in the flashback scenes as we see the hugely formative experiences inflicted by their father. They pull it off though, with a demonstrable chemistry and a considered touch to the changing power dynamic in their sibling relationship. Strong work too from Joshua Richards and Brodie Ross as a contrasting father/son from across the way and Ross Green’s waiter Stanley makes a vivid but compelling cameo late on. 

The height of Stephen Brimson Lewis’ functional design is wonderfully backlit by Tim Mitchell to constantly remind us of the Lomans’ position in the world, but there’s an oddly twee touch to the lift out in front which doesn’t quite gel with the rest. Paul Englishby’s live score is a luxurious atmospheric addition that works well but despite the overall quality, this was a production that never threatened to ignite into something spectacular.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Booking until 2nd May

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