By Arthur Miller. Sydney Theatre Company. Director: Paige Rattray. Roslyn Packer Theatre. 3rd to 22nd December, 2021.
Reviewed : 8 December, 2021
Death of a Salesman is a ‘modern tragedy’ that follows all the traditions of Greek tragedy – except that Arthur Miller’s tragic hero, Willy Loman, is not a ‘noble’. He is just a ‘common man’ who has realised he has no chance of achieving the American Dream – namely that “life can be better for every person if he or she has the opportunity and willingness to work hard— regardless of their background or social class”.
Growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression and the Second World War had taught Miller that “some people would never be able to realize that dream, no matter how hard they worked”. Willy Loman is one of those ‘people’ and the realities of what he sees as the failure of his life haunt him constantly.
Willy is flawed, and is eventually destroyed by his own weaknesses, yet, like all tragic heroes, those weaknesses resonate with his audiences and arouse their pity – and their fear, as they realise that he sees death as his only redemption.
Willy and Linda Loman and their sons Biff and Happy have walked on many stages and the silver screen since Death of a Salesman first opened in New York in 1949. Their story has been summarised in many program notes, their characters carefully analysed, Miller’s themes intricately probed and explored. Over 72 years, their tragedy has been interpreted by many directors, each of whom faced the challenge of making their production ‘new’, whilst staying true to the characters and to Miller’s juxtaposition of the facets of tragedy.
Paige Rattray’s production is true to both. She, with set designer David Fleischer, has used the vast space of the Roslyn Packer stage to recreate, cunningly, the scale and atmosphere of an ancient Greek amphitheatre, albeit enclosed by a high, looming ceiling. In an interview in 1999, Arthur Miller said he had intended to call the play ‘The Inside of His Head’ and that “The original set I saw as the gigantic interior of a skull and the whole play played inside it.” Fleischer’s set captures that vision.
The stage is a vast room, its towering walls and ceiling coloured a dull bluish-green like a film of Verdigris tarnishing the lives within. Tall windows reaching high on stage left allow intermittent light to filter through. Tall doors face them on stage right. A split level upstage is surrounded by a disintegrating wooden frame. A small, square table, mismatched chrome chairs and a fridge are the meagre props.
So many symbols face the audience if they are looking for them. The high walls and uncurtained windows symbolise the apartments towering above the Lomans’ home, looking in on their simple life. The verdigris walls symbolise the stain of their debts, the disintegrating frame, the things that need repair and the fridge and car that break down before they’re paid off …
In this enormous void, the characters exist, dwarfed by the complications of their lives, the futility that is engulfing them just like the new, high tenements around them have engulfed their home, swallowing up the green spaces, demolishing the trees, creating shadows where nothing will grow …
This atmosphere of oppression is emphasised in the costumes (Teresa Negroponte). Greys and browns predominate in Willy’s depressed reality. It is only the ghost of his wealthy brother Ben that brings lighter hues, and the garish restaurant where Biff and Happy fail to break his despair.
Lighting designer Paul Jackson and composer Clemence Williams work together to underscore the turmoil of the action. Clemence eerily picks up on the reference to the flutes that Willy’s father made and sold, letting their sounds infiltrate his effects, piercing at times, softly betraying at others, shadows of the past, harbingers of a grey future. Jackson uses a battery of lights beside and beyond the stage infiltrate the set with more visible shadows and darker portents.
Rattray uses her cast to double as a traditional Greek chorus. Led by The Woman (Brigid Zengeni) they watch the action, their still scrutiny broken only to become a character in Willy’s memory, or to bring in a prop or move a chair. Zengeni herself is a constant energy force on the stage – still, observant – a distanced but pervasive presence, leading the audience into the turmoil of Willy’s mind in a voice that is analytically authoritative.
Rattray skilfully balances ancient form and contemporary style in this production where Miller’s characters are dwarf-like figures in a cavernous space much like Miller imagined originally. The emptiness highlights the futility of Willy’s thwarted ambition – and allows the actors to find the disturbing dimensions of their characters.
Jacek Koman is heart-breakingly believable as Willy. He mercurially moves Willy from despair to joy, from desolation to hope with a store of energy that is unflagging. Even when he stands, rigidly still, he imbues Willy with a restlessness that is unnerving. In the final scenes that restlessness becomes a turbulent force that sweeps through the audience in an inaudible gasp.
Helen Thomson balances that restlessness with Linda Loman’s relentless loyalty and devotion. She is still when Willy paces. She bites her tongue when he interrupts. She waits tolerantly, holding his jacket, while he prevaricates. She hedges her reminders of debts owing and broken fixtures with gentle patience. Yet Thomson still manages to infer a fear that keeps Linda constantly vigilant.
Biff is the son in whom Willy placed so much hope – hope that Biff saw as a burden that led him to failure after failure. Josh McConville carries that burden in a carefully taut performance that sees Biff’s resentment flare time and time again until it eventually erupts in a scene that shows Willy just how much Biff cares about him.
Callan Colley is Happy, Biff’s younger brother. Colley epitomises his nickname. He is easy-going, nonchalant, backing away from responsibility if he can, seeking pleasure whenever possible. He contrasts McConville’s burning bitterness with casual cool.
Philip Quast hovers elegantly as the ghost of Ben Loman. Bruce Spence is engaging as Willy’s calm, slow talking, generous neighbour Charley. Quast and Zengeni come together to provide an entertaining distraction as the cast expertly and smoothly transform the set into a bright, 1940s restaurant.
There is much more that could be written about this production. Much has been written already. The ghost of Miller’s salesman uncle lives on in Rattray’s vision of ‘a modern tragedy’ – and in Jacek Koman’s hauntingly memorable interpretation of Willy Loman.
As Miller said back in that 1999 interview: “Everyone loves Willy except Willy”.