Posts Tagged ‘death of a salesman

27
Feb
19

Death of a Salesman

 

Death of a Salesman

Queensland Theatre

QPAC Playhouse

February 9 – March 2

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

THE REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM THAT DEFINED THE 20TH CENTURY

 

What is a human life worth?

 

I saw the very first preview performance (this is the first time the play is seen by an audience outside the privacy and security of the rehearsal room) and two and a half weeks later, one of the final performances of the season. Despite my knack for writing really interesting and insightful and particularly generous preview reviews because I can imagine that a show will be exactly where it needs to be by opening night (I keep telling them that!!!) we tend not to write up previews – in fact, we’re asked not to – because at this stage the production is still in its infancy, and things can be a little clunky, or not quite clear. There’s still time before opening night to make changes and tweak things, and this is why you’ll often pay less for a preview ticket…and why it’s often a good idea to make a return visit to experience the show all over again, as the director intends it to look and feel, before closing night.

 

 

And so, in true teacher guise, I experienced Queensland Theatre’s first offering for the year, Death Of A Salesman, not once but twice: the first time, at the end of an excellent and entertaining day of professional development with Andrea Moor, analysing the text and remembering tricks to try with drama students to get realistic scenes on their feet without any fuss or (ironically) theatrics, and the second time, with our senior drama students after a chat with the director in the Playhouse Lounge. As  you can imagine, if you know the play at all or anything of it, there were some strong reactions to the matinee performance on Wednesday February 27, and some tears.

 

 

Arthur Miller’s seminal text from the 1940s remains as disturbingly relevant now as ever. With society’s emphasis on mental health, the worth of a man or woman, our best advice coming to our newsfeeds in the form of funny memes, the #metoo movement, and the somewhat token efforts to overhaul our education and health systems, Jason Klarwein’s faithful production for Queensland Theatre stands firm and strong. This version is a towering warning sign, as we continue to veer towards our own self-destruction as a workaholic, weary society. Sounds dismal, doesn’t it? Well, we know there’s not going to be a happy ending. Willy Loman is not a happy man. His failure to attain for himself, and deliver to his family the fabled American Dream sees him broken, unable to celebrate the success of others or relinquish his stranglehold on the past, defeated and eaten up by envy, self-loathing and regret, unable to go on.

 

 

Peter Kowitz lives and breathes every complex, tragic aspect of Willy Loman. Every haunted look comes from somewhere we wish we could see into more clearly so that we might know the ways to help him to see for himself the good that his long-suffering wife, Linda (Angie Milliken), still sees in him, and that we want to believe is at the core of every man. It’s a slow-burning, heartbreaking performance, challenging us to withhold judgement and simply accept that he’s always done only what he’s always felt he had to do. Kowitz has boundless energy in the moments spent in Willy’s mind, literally leaping and dashing about the stage, in stark contrast to his downtrodden state each time he returns to reality. Kevin Hides leaves his indelible mark on this production as the distinguished, rich, dead, older brother, Ben, and what a settle-back-in-your-seat pleasure it is to hear his beautiful, distinctive vocal work again. Likewise, elevating this role into another realm entirely, Charles Allen holds our attention, and in his voice and powerfully still presence, brings both ancient wisdom and boyish joy to the role of the neighbour Charley, the man whom Willy recognises – while Charley does not – as his only friend. “Now, isn’t that remarkable?”

 

 

 

Thomas Larkin’s finely layered performance – perhaps the best we’ve seen from him; certainly it’s the most demanding role he’s been gifted and he rises to every challenge – is just as heartbreaking, the measure of a man made clear to Biff by his father and Biff’s perception in turn made clear to us, that he will forever fall short of expectations. Larkin and Kowitz find something so raw and real in their father-son relationship that even the toughest teenaged boys in the audience are visibly affected, finally shifting in their seats after their perfect stillness throughout the savage shouting, and tears around the kitchen table, and awkward embraces by the sink, and end-of-the-night promises on the stairs.

 

 

Jackson McGovern, the perfect foil for Larkin’s Biff, is his younger brother, Happy (really, this is such superb casting, these two), and for a whole disquieting scene, he is also Willy’s heartless employer, Howard.

The audience reaction to this scene is something else, taking the travesty of Willy’s situation beyond even the mood the actors have established.

Each of Willy’s offers to take a pay cut are met with audible sighs of disappointment, shock, immense sadness. The air in the Playhouse gets heavy. The pauses on stage start to get uncomfortably long and it’s perfect. I’ve never heard or felt anything like it. The energy of the entire audience is with Willy, wanting desperately for him to see his worth and to sell that.

 

 

I always feel when I read this play on the page as if not enough attention is paid to Linda, who chooses her suffering and enters graciously into a life of it. (Imagine the contemporary sequel! Again I say, Bubnic it!). She can get a bit lost, but attention must be paid to Milliken, whose magic is in her seemingly effortless embodiment of the woman behind the man and the mother of their two hopeless, lovely boys. Her attempts to gently influence, and interrupt and disrupt the train wreck of family events / non-events are well measured, and her outbursts are as magnificent as her quieter, more nuanced, more devastating moments. We feel kids and adults alike, all around, cringing and squirming, and the couple in front include me in their parenting discussion during interval (they’d seen on the news that our College has banned mobile phones on campus).

 

Meanwhile, Miller’s words out of Milliken’s mouth have never been truer. 

 

 

The slightly jarring, suddenly changing lighting states to signify Willy’s altered state of mind happen seamlessly now, making what has always been a little confusing in the text abundantly clear on stage. The new wave design team here include: Verity Hampson (Lighting Designer), Justin Harrison (Composer/Sound & Projection Designer), Anthony Spinaze (Associate Designer/Costume Designer) and Richard Roberts (Set Designer). No, no one is new to their job but there might be a lovely new combination of aesthetic and abilities right there.

 

If I could, I would even see this production a third time. The play is a masterpiece. By leading us into their world and onwards to the crescendo of their lives, we recognise something of ourselves in these characters – these humans – and in their choices, and in the story they tell. It’s actually our story and there is medicine in its darker aspects, its shadows, if we are willing to look beyond what we are led to believe is best and real and right.