Before his death in February this year, American Arthur Miller was considered by many to be the world’s greatest living playwright, with Death Of A Salesman at the very pinnacle of his canon. The production of the highly-acclaimed play that opened at the Lyric theatre last night was itself lauded while on Broadway, winning four Tony Awards in the process. It has transferred with the same production team and many of the same cast. Matthew Amer attended the press night with much anticipation.
Death Of A Salesman is a play which will always attract interest when it is staged. As a play, it is as well respected as Hamlet or A Streetcar Named Desire. This particular production has been even more eagerly awaited as, during its 1999 Broadway incarnation, it picked up no less than four Tony Awards including Best Revival, Best Direction (for Robert Falls) and Best Actor (for Brian Dennehy). The five years since have been spent wondering when the production would finally take the leap across the Atlantic.
The leap has finally been made. As the many dinner-jacketed audience members sat awaiting the performance last night, the bleak stage was shrouded in a cold blue light. It made for an inhospitable sight. The sound of cars speeding by and an ominous drumbeat filled the auditorium, as the barrel-chested silhouette of Brian Dennehy, who plays the salesman of the title, Willy Loman, was illuminated through an open doorframe.
Dennehy is best-known for his numerous film credits which include Montague in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo And Juliet, F/X and F/X2, Presumed Innocent, Silverado, Cocoon and First Blood. The Yale dramatic arts graduate, who has two Best Actor Tony Awards to his name – Death Of A Salesman (1999) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003) – is most recognizable playing hard-nosed, cynical or corrupt officials, but makes his imposing frame seem a fragile shell while playing Willy Loman.
Willy is a hard-working family man who has spent his life striving to provide for his wife Linda and two sons Happy and Biff. His career as a traveling salesman has been built on the idea that if you are well-liked you can achieve anything in America. Yet, as he gets older it becomes harder for him to travel around, and his mind wanders back to previous times in his life, when his sons were just teenagers. His revelations reveal that actually he may not have been as successful as he thought, and that the American Dream may be more of a nightmare.
Willy’s wife Linda is a woman who dotes on the man she married: she can see what is happening to him, but cannot do anything to stop his morbid decline. Clare Higgins, who plays the mother willing to give up her sons for the man she loves, is one of the West End’s most acclaimed actresses, with an impressive awards cabinet including three Best Actress Oliviers – Hecuba (2005), Vincent In Brixton (2003) and Sweet Bird Of Youth (1995).
Brothers Biff, the high school American football star who never recovered from a dreadful discovery, and Happy, the younger brother constantly vying for attention in the shadow of his sibling, are played by English actors Douglas Henshall and Mark Bazeley. Both bring previous West End experience to their roles as the disenchanted hero-worshipper and man on a mission to prove his worth. Henshall’s previous credits include The Coast Of Utopia (National), American Buffalo (Young Vic) and The Life Of Stuff (Donmar Warehouse), while Bazeley’s include Macbeth (Albery), The Real Thing (Donmar Warehouse) and Antarctica (Savoy).
Amid the stress and strain of the Loman’s lives, a little comic relief comes in the scenes between Willy and Charley, Willy’s long-suffering neighbour and closest friend. Charley, in his slow, slightly downbeat drawl, both stands up to and protects Willy as only a character slightly removed from the action can. He becomes the benevolent older brother that was never really there for Willy. Howard Witt, who plays Charley, transferred with the Broadway production, having been nominated for a Tony himself. He comes to the West End having finished a run in another Miller play, The Price, in December.
Director Robert Falls is another who transferred with the Broadway production, having originally staged it at the Goodman theatre, Chicago, where he has been artistic director since 1986. Falls also worked on Miller’s final play, Finishing The Picture, a piece which he believes brought together all of the main themes of Miller’s previous work. On Broadway, Falls has now directed two Tony Award winning plays, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, also with Dennehy, and Death Of A Salesman.
Whether Death Of A Salesman will collect any British awards won’t be known until much later this year, but the press night crowd certainly enjoyed it enough to give a prolonged standing ovation. Dennehy, with a cheeky tilt of his wrist, suggested that, after nearly three and a half hours of heart-wrenching, tear-inducing drama, he appreciated the thanks but was in real need of some liquid refreshment.