Death of a Salesman – Assembly Roxy

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by Theo MacDonald

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s something precious about the unremarkable. Few stories can capture such harrowing emotion and guttural punches than that of American dramatist Arthur Miller’s tragic exploration of their most ‘every day’ of characters.

Both victim and fiend, Willy Loman is the amalgam of decades of capitalist illusion and de-fragmentation of identity that plagued, and plagues, thousands of men across America. A man for whom contradiction is the natural response to maintain a sense of identity, of importance in a world unconcerned if he lives or dies. Miller synthesises as diverse a range of drama as any playwright, a master of distinguished contemporary commentary – and despite the age of his productions, at the time, the social commentary was gripping, for some – dangerous, and even to this day the conclusion of Death of a Salesman silences crowds.

Audiences are familiar with The CrucibleAll My SonsAfter the Fall, and, in this case, Death of a Salesman. And yet, there is a fear among some in staging any of Miller’s defining pieces. The intensity of the script and the cultural significance of the plot make Death of a Salesman evoke a nostalgic vibe for working-middle-class suburban America. But there isn’t a salesman alive today who doesn’t spot themselves in Loman: a man who excels at selling you anything – selling himself comes naturally. 

Miller’s unyielding engagement with political issues, injustices and lacerating dematerialising of the ‘American Dream’ is a stingingly significant representation for generations of writers. Director Theo MacDonald comprehends that attempting to remove the psychological aspect from the political is fruitless, but damaging to Miller’s work. As such, Death of a Salesman is as forthcoming concerning American politics, indeed international, as it is about the ticking bomb beneath the everyman façade. And in lead performer George Williams, MacDonald manages to achieve everything Miller desired with a tightness. For any production of Death of a Salesman to be considered successful, Willy Loman must be everything Miller intended: thoroughly unremarkable. But remarkable in performance.

The tiredness with which Williams emits is distressingly authentic, while it does take time to adjust to the movement choices from a performer so (in the kindest of ways) junior to the character they inhabit, within mere minutes Williams’ metamorphosis, held together by Willy’s shattered pride and a few cups of Joe, is truly spectacular and heartbreaking.

The psychology of behaviour is a full demonstration of Williams’ performance. At any moment the fuse could ignite; at any moment this everyman of the perverted capitalist fetishism could shatter. A magnificent element can be observed in Williams’ eyes – giving away as much of Willy’s mental state as any of Miller’s written word. For a man so broken and tired, William’s eyes never rest, always flittering, anxious, animated, and desperately searching for something upon which he can rely. Willy, finally able to pay off his grave once the world has leased him his cradle is a starkly contemporary notion – and the weight carried by Williams is something only the shrewdest of perceptions could achieve in understanding a playwright’s continued relevance and stark, but the undeniable, ideology of the failures and cruelties of society.

But in a way, Willy has a legacy in his two sons – even if they are failing to live up to the doctrine and expectations in a folly pursuit of happiness. His eldest, Biff, is more than welcome to follow his dreams of playing football, so long as it aligns with the ‘correct’ manner. Wealth and fortune are denied to Biff after failing high-school maths, and trauma rebuts his attempts to solve this. William Petrie has a powerful presence on the Roxy stage – a reserved set with only a few chairs, a table, and an ever-present window to the world hung above. Their scenes with Williams’ Willy Loman are agonising in a way – likely sparking recognition to any fathers and sons in the audience. But Petrie holds themselves with a measure of control, an intelligent performance of a young man coming to understand the crushing talons of the American Dream’s capitalist structure – there is no societal mobility for Biff, and the resulting aggressions are nothing short of terrifying, and all too recognisable still in young men today.

Obfuscated, Willy’s other son Happy has a lesser position in the text, a far more apathetic role performed well by Oscar Bryan. Jaded and uncaring to an extent, there’s less to work with – often dominated by the presence of Willy or Biff. Bryan does well to emerge from these shadows, however, particularly in the necessary comedic elements for the heavy text. His lothario antics are a welcome (if still repulsive) break from the show’s more distressing moments.

But it should not be surprising that the crux of the narrative is not a man, but a mother. And where William’s portrayal is the show’s fire, Olivia Martin’s performance as Linda Loman, Willy’s wife, is the heart of this story. MacDonald does not direct the audience into a set emotion, instead presenting them with a choice – a range of emotional states and trauma which some may identify. But it is hard not to find Martin’s emotive performance commendable, even if many of their character’s choices and motives are questionable. It is a stoic role – equally as exhausted as William’s, but for differing reasons.

These key performances demonstrate Death of a Salesman’s largest issue, which arises from the ensemble roles, all performed admirably, but when held against Williams, Martin or Petrie, have grievances or choppier accents brought into a highlight. Though notable performances from Nikita Mathews, Scarlet-Rose McCaffrey and Ellie Watermeyer do help to infuse a sense of motion and, dare we say, humanity to it all amidst the misery and crumbling illusion.

Cutting to the heart of Miller’s disdain for the oppressive control of capitalism, MacDonald and assistant director Aneesha Jaswal capture every element of this masterpiece text – but more vitally, infuse enough in the way of comedy, movement and engagement to hold audiences for a lengthy time. The direct truth is that this, like Miller’s others, is not easy to stage correctly. And they will lose viewers. But this latest remounting strips the production down to the essentials: an everyday man, slowly decaying under the contradictions with which he built his life. And it does this with dignity and moxy.

Dignity and Moxy

Death of a Salesman runs at The Assembly Roxy until April 28th. Tuesday – Friday at 19.00pm.
Runs for three hours and ten minutes, including interval. Suitable for Ages 12+
Tickets begin from £7.00 and may be obtained here.

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