Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Death of a Salesman

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Death of a Salesman

Article excerpt

Death of a Salesman

Noel Coward Theatre, until 18 July

High Society

Old Vic, until 22 August

Here come the Yanks. As the summer jumbos disgorge their cargoes of wealthy, courteous, culture-hungry Americans, the West End prepares to bag a fortune. Death of a Salesman is just the kind of timeless post-war classic that Americans adore, isn't it? Not quite. Arthur Miller is mistrusted in his homeland. For starters he was a closet pinko who kept the closet door wide open. He was wooed by Hollywood but spurned every inducement. He married Marilyn Monroe and failed to make her happy. And top of the chargesheet is this play, which proposes that the American dream is a con, a swindle, a diabolical cruelty that hounds mortals to death by engorging their bellies with fantasies of happiness. It's a superb artefact but relentlessly uncomfortable to sit through. A bit like complex dental work. Awful during, better after.

All hail to Stephen Brimson Lewis's design which evokes run-down Brooklyn with concise visual gestures. Antony Sher's portly bleating performance reminds us what a terrible salesman Willy Loman is: gauche, nervous, over-eager and quite humourless, but convinced his patter is amusing. Couple of thoughts. Sher's voice is seagull thin and its register high so at moments of great passion he lacks gravitas and manliness. Occasionally, he squawks. Not his fault. That's how his chords work. And he uses too much shorthand here, sometimes leaping to a fresh emotional state without showing us how he got there. Tricky, however, to address these shortcomings during rehearsals because the director, Greg Doran, is the real-life pair of Sher.

Loman's wife is played by Harriet Walter, who has the echo of a lovely face and has scrubbed out every remaining hint of desirability. It's in the script: the lank grey hair, the crab-apple cheeks, the dustbowl pallor. Walter drags herself around in a dowdy apron utterly devoted to her faithless, quailing mate and she emerges ennobled and magnificent. It's an extraordinary performance made out of virtually nothing. Somehow she captures Linda's abject glory and raises the doormat to the height of the lintel.

This is a fine production of a painful play which may well succeed in attracting throngs of Americans. But it's a bit like staging The Quare Fellow on Broadway and expecting the Brits to flock.

More Yank-bait on the South Bank. Kevin Spacey has destroyed the Old Vic by rebuilding its interior as a traverse space ('in the round' as it's called) with sparkly floors and corny, thrusting balconies. …

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