Left – John Stanton, Ben O'Toole, Josh McConville. Cover – Caroline McKenzie, Igor Sas, Josh McConville, Ben O'Toole, Eden Falk. Photos – Gary Marsh
The American Dream is unraveling at the State Theatre Centre in Perth with Black Swan’s latest production, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Willy Loman’s slow demise is a poetic and unsettling experience, an exploration of the inevitable, and a testament to the universality and endurance of Miller’s writing. This classic piece of American theatre remains powerful across decades, and maintains relevance across cultures.
Under the direction of Adam Mitchell, this cast of mostly Australians (as far as I can tell) has managed to skillfully grasp the requisite specificities of time and place (depression-era and post-WWII New England), and have successfully delivered something that feels authentic to the era, both in manner and mood. John Stanton, in particular, has adopted the style so terrifically that his speech begins to resemble a kind of early free jazz.
This intense family drama unfolds inside a cavernous, non-specific space conceptualized by Alicia Clements and designed by Trent Suidgeest, that evokes both imposing bank lobbies and drafty machine factories. It’s a gargantuan box with an industrial fan built into the high back wall, a huge pillar impaling the stage space just off center, and a dozen open doorways around the perimeter. It’s a bold visual concept, but one that ultimately works against the drama to a degree; something about the acoustics inside the box muddies the dialogue, and although it’s intended to make Willy Loman appear dwarfed and insignificant, it’s actually the oversized space that is somehow minimized by the power of the actors. Just as well.
Willy and his two sons are exceptional. John Stanton’s Willy Loman is frightening, frustrating, and pitiful. He’s a man that could turn on a dime, with a temper that threatens to flare up at any moment. Stanton is virtuosic as Loman; he clearly understands each twist of the man’s mind and falls freely, without hesitation, into Loman’s pitfalls of character.
Hap (Ben O’Toole) has a cheery disposition which, as we come to understand later, belies his darker tendencies. O’Toole charms and lends a lot of positive energy to the scene; this is imperative in such a heavy drama. Josh McConville as Biff burns slowly in his journey through the course of this piece. McConville displays total honesty in his reluctance to buy into the family’s group delusion, and as Willy crumbles before our eyes, Biff gains courage and conviction. A powerful and adept performance.
This production does have a few flaws, mainly stemming from some of the minor characters who don’t seem quite as in tune with the material; this removed us from the realism and detracted from the pace in spots. The characters that drift in and out of Willy Loman’s consciousness in the physical space become too cacophonous at times, so that the action risks becoming unclear – a situation which tended to be compounded by those previously mentioned acoustic issues.
The climactic final confrontation between father and son is one of the most emotionally honest and breathtaking scenes I have experienced in the theatre. The family quartet has been so finely tuned in this scene that we forget we’re in the theatre. It’s brutal, it’s gut-wrenching, but it is also supremely satisfying and cathartic.
Ultimately, we work hard along with Willy to get to that scene, where truth meets fiction. In the end, Willy Loman gets what he’s been after the whole time, through us, the audience: he lives on in our memory, and his legacy is his story.
Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Director Adam Mitchell
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre | State Theatre Centre, 174 William St, Perth
Dates: 4 – 25 May 2013
Tickets: $69.50 – $29.50
Bookings: Ticketek 1300 795 012 | ticketek.com.au