ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Sarah Frankcom
Sarah Frankcom directs this post-war classic as a sensitive and cerebral study of a family glued together and cracked wide open by the fragility of the veneer of success they cling to. This is an epic study of human beings driven by the human urge for survival, respect and love and with the desire for financial success. Writing in 1949, Miller had a living memory of the Great Depression and was observing the post war escalation of consumerism and greed for success. This is the tragedy of one man and his family in an ultimately fruitless, blind pursuit of the American Dream.
The set design by Leslie Travers creates a sense of normality which also manages to feel quite dreamlike. It’s apparent simplicity effectively allows the focus to be centred on a simple table which represents the centre of the home, the desk of the business world and the dining table of public success. The surrounding edge seating allows other actors to be the chorus of memories in Willy’s mind. Overhead the dense green foliage is perhaps suggestive of the theme of blind ambition, in that we literally cannot see the wood for the trees. The gradual change of leaf colour in Act 2 is poignant as dreams start to fade and crumble.
Frankcom draws stellar performances from a strong cast. Don Warrington absolutely embodies Willy Loman with his weary stoop, worn down by despair and the weight of his salesman’s sample cases. This is a man full of bluster and desperation whose only strategy to cope with fear and disappointment is stubborn denial of his reality. Warrington moves with ease between bravado and rage in erratic mood shifts that can bleed into the warm charm of the consummate salesman. This is a slow burn performance which by the second act is blistering and visceral as lies are challenged and truths are finally spoken. This is a narcissistic man descending into madness or possibly dementia who has been thrown on the scrap heap and whose thwarted ambitions now shift toward the possible validation of a well attended funeral.
Maureen Beattie as Linda gives a powerful performance. She is every inch the supportive, devoted wife propping up her husband’s ego and encouraging her sons to do the same. A paragon of virtue and a loving wife terrified of Willie’s suicidal tendencies she appears to exude everything that makes him declare her “my foundation and my support”. However as her character is further revealed her steely resolve is apparent and it becomes clear that she enables Willy in his quest for success like a partner supporting an addict. She chills and terrifies as she eviscerates her sons when they challenge their father’s perspective.
Biff (Ashley Zhangazha) and Happy (Buom Tihngang) are both strong as the Loman boys. Zhangazha is especially powerful as the older son who is the only one willing to confront his own failings having painfully witnessed the truth about his father. The moment when he speaks of his father and reflects “He had the wrong dreams” is electrifying. Tihngang brings energy and enthusiasm to his role as the younger boy seeking approval from his parents. Spiritually bankrupt and full of selfish entitlement and largesse he is truly his father’s son and a product of a consumerist society.
This is a play that truly stands the test of time. The memory bleed which Willy experiences and it’s impact on his family will resonate with many families living with mental health issues and/or dementia. It also serves to remind us of how the past informs the present when we try to understand our family relationships and patterns of behaviour. This play addresses our very human fear of being a Nobody and how essential it is for human well-being to have validation. Timely reminder for today’s audience as we inhabit a celebrity obsessed world where success is defined by the numbers of followers on social media. Just like Willy Loman many of us struggle with the cognitive dissonance of not living the lives we expected to and revert to various coping strategies to stay in denial. Perhaps like Biff, we all need to pause sometimes, look up at the sky and remember who we really are.
Royal Exchange Theatre 11 Oct – 17 Nov
Production images by Johan Persson