"This play is sad from the minute it starts” said a woman in the foyer. Moments later, visibly weighed down by far more than suitcases of sales samples, Willy Loman shuffled into view – she was right.
The rapacious buy in to the artifice of America's promise is as unwitting as it is nurtured as it is revered. An ideal allegedly possible for all, unattainable for many and realised by few, Arthur Miller’s take and rejection of the ‘American Dream’ is no better demonstrated than in Death of a Salesman.
Since its premier in 1949, Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece has long been regarded as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century and its protagonist, one of theatres greatest roles. In this exclusive Melbourne production, Anthony LaPaglia makes his Australian stage debut and joins an astonishing list of actors who have brought Willy Loman to life.
Willy Loman is the embodiment of the American everyman, exhausted by the treadmill of disillusionment and a galloping powerlessness to avert the magnitude of predicament and expectation. Willy’s tragedy lies is his inability to differentiate between what it is to be perceived by others over what it is to be those things authentically – salesman, husband, father, American.
LaPaglia is simply outstanding as a salesman bartering down his own price. Believable, present, committed – every indignity is expertly handled, never demonstrated but achingly and authentically realised. Watching in seat shifting discomfort, it’s easy to imagine where a lesser performer might go but LaPaglia expertly underplays with such measured precision that our pity for this man is at times excruciating. The choices made to summon this performance we shan’t ever know but they are what makes an actor of this calibre so exhilarating to watch.
Death of Salesmen amplifies its enormous themes inside a tight family drama along with a periphery of smaller yet crucial characters. Miller’s descriptors in his text offer fascinating insight and of Willy’s wife he advises, “she has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to Willy’s behaviour – she more than loves him, she admires him.”
Alison Whyte as Linda Lowman clearly absorbed the brief and she delivers on it powerfully. Whyte is gripping and at times an uncomfortable watch particularly in reproach of her sons. Stoic in upholding pretence and making do in the midst of Willy’s increasing failings, she scrambles to maintain and reinforce the collapsing structures around her. This performance is so good and so commanding that there are times when the narrative thrust becomes hers.
Willy’s sons, and in particular, Biff his eldest, are the through line to the pact he’s made with the national ethos. Through them, the good he is meant to do can be done, but they are failing at the impossible. As Biff and Happy Lowman, Josh Helman and Sean Keenan are terrific. These are great roles and both actors are incredibly solid in completing the damaged Lowman household.
Set Designer Dale Ferguson’s answer to the writers call for a design incorporating transparency was baseball stadium bleachers; director Neil Armfield’s use of them is potent indeed. An ensemble of truly fine actors completes the cast and together they deliver some incredibly memorable moments. Armfield’s decision to place the company, almost throughout, in the stands like witnesses, jurors and contributors to the demise of another human being is utterly compelling.
Anthony LaPaglia has stated that he would not have accepted the challenge of this role had it not come from Neil Armfield with whom he worked on the 2015 film adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man. Together, LaPaglia, Armfield and this entire company have created a genuine theatrical event as good as its marketing suggests. Theatre’s emblazoned with big names starring in major works is what we should be seeing in this city. Thankfully, there are still some visionary producers willing to extend their risk beyond the sure bet of the carbon copy musical.
Neil Armfield’s vision for this work was clearly to let it speak. We can see right through those bleachers, right to the back wall.
It’s transparent – the spectre of America!
Funny isn’t it, we don’t even call this kind of seating ‘bleachers’ and here we are seeing right through them, all while being inexorably colonised by the very same manifesto.
“Attention must be paid”.
GWB Entertainment and Red Line Productions present
Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Director Neil Armfield
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 1 September – 15 October 2023