Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange, Manchester
11 October 2018 to 17 November 2018
Death of a Salesman is a near-perfect play. Its language is almost poetic (though pure vernacular), its construction catches you by surprise as events from the past are brought to bear on the present by flashback, and even though the title tells you from the start what’s going to happen in the end you still care about the hero, ageing Willy Loman, the salesman himself.
It’s got qualities of an epic poem, or a Greek tragedy (there’s a unity of time and something pretty close to a unity of place, once you discount the flashbacks and the interview scene, where Willy, already employed on commission-only, finally gets fired by the son of the boss who originally took him on the sales force).
Sarah Frankcom’s production for the Royal Exchange puts all the focus on the text and the central relationships: Willy and his wife Linda, his sons Biff and Happy, his neighbour Charley and high-flying son Bernard – and the ghost-like figure of Willy’s long-unseen, rich brother, Ben. Most of the time there’s just a kitchen table in the middle of the set to represent the Loman home, and a suspended tree above to ease harshness on the eye (and pick up an idea from the text about a bough that’s going to break).
In one way it’s inevitable for such an episodic work performed in the round. In another it’s a choice: how would you solve the problems inherent in a production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman? – Answer: do it on the radio. So we have sound effects, along with lighting switches, to mark aspects of the storyline and the flashbacks, and an undercurrent of almost-subliminal hum, and later an exaggerated knocking, to build the tension.
With all of that a huge amount depends on Don Warrington’s central portrayal of Willy. It’s a fabulous role to play – the disintegration of a guy who never really made it but has to keep up the appearance of optimism and mastery of his fate, and how the truth about himself and his sense of responsibility for the way his feckless sons turned out becomes unbearable. Warrington’s King Lear, also seen at the Royal Exchange, may have been on another level dramatically, but there are parallels. I don’t think this was quite as towering an achievement as that was – Willy has to be tired man, not a raging one, after all, so there are limits – or even the greatest Willy Loman ever, but it’s a moving one.
There’s also some very good teamwork from the other actors: Tom Hodgkins’ Charley, Ashley Zhangazha’s Biff and Buom Tihngang’s Happy in particular, and outstandingly from Maureen Beattie as Linda Loman. Her portrayal raised the role almost to equal tragedy with that of Willy.
Reviewer: Robert Beale