Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman

There’s a lovely moment that happens sometimes at the theatre that lets you know that you've seen a really emotionally powerful show.

The moment happens in the silence between the end of act two and the start of applause, when everyone just sits absorbing what they've seen and the only sound you can hear is people quietly sobbing. I love that moment, and it happens so rarely that every time it does happen I love it even more.

There was definitely a serious moment at the end of the (for some genuinely unfathomable reason half empty) production of the RSC’s Death of a Salesman I saw the other night.

Image source.

Telling the story of hard-working New York salesman Willie Loman and his tragically unsuccessful quest to live his American Dream, this production has five star reviews coming out of its ears and it’s not difficult to see why: it’s fucking brilliant.

Adding to an almost embarrassingly long list of great performances I've seen so far this year, it’s the acting in Death of a Salesman that ensures it’s heartbreakingly memorable.

Antony Sher is devastatingly good as Willie. In an extraordinarily detailed performance - and with a top drawer New York accent - he gives us a fully rounded picture of a desperate, flawed man. His Willie is harsh and unfeeling; tender and jovial; confused and lonely all at the same time. He balances the energy and determination of Willie’s early years (the flashback scenes are so artfully done - making it clear when we are without holding up the plot) with the decline and delusion of the present day perfectly which makes the impact of the latter all the more upsetting to watch. He makes Willie’s story terrifyingly real and almost draining on the audience to watch which, in this instance, I mean as a complement. It’s really fantastic stuff.

I was almost more impressed, if that’s possible, with the supporting performances from Alex Hassell as Willie’s elder son Biff and Harriet Walter as his long suffering wife Linda. Walter in particular is incredible as the loyal but wounded wife defiantly standing by her man despite everything. Her final scenes, collapsing by Willie’s grave, are so powerful and so, so sad (the cause of the aforementioned moment). She provides the heart of the production, and whether that heart is beating loud and strong or breaking quietly she is elegant and compelling. Hassell is great too, managing to deal with the huge amount of work the flashback scenes place on him - at various points portraying the same character as a small boy, a teenager and an adult - incredibly convincingly and playing the angry, confused, scared adult Biff with just the right amount of tense energy. He feels like a dangerous character, in the same way a wounded animal is dangerous.

The staging of the production is simple, I suspect deceptively so, consisting of a two up two down house with New York brownstone high rises on either side. It’s also extremely effective in creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia. Everyone in the family is under each other’s feet, literally and emotionally, and the house itself is under the feet of the modern New York City that Willie complains feels so alien to him. When emotions run high the results of this close confinement is inevitable. There is a simple and almost always ominous score playing behind much of the action which adds to this claustrophobic mood. It’s altogether so effective, one of those productions you wish you could stop in some way because you know something too awful to contemplate is going to happen in the end.

This is one of my favourite shows I've seen this year and some of the strongest individual and ensemble acting I've ever seen. Everyone should see this production and given our experience of ticket sales everyone can - we were upgraded from the royal circle (cheap seats) to the ninth row of the stalls on a Friday night, utterly baffling for such an outstanding show (the last - and only other - time we had seats upgraded it was for everyone’s favourite omnishambles Stephen Ward). So yeah, get tickets and prepare to have your heart broken in a masterful fashion.

Death of a Salesman is on at the Noel Coward theatre until July 18th.

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