Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller)
Heath Ledger Theatre. Northbridge
reviewed by Neville Cohn
If ever the definition of a classic applied to a play as a work which remains relevant beyond its own era, it is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It shines an unblinking light on the American dream in collapse. It is Miller’s masterpiece. And Black Swan’s production, in the most profound sense, draws one ineluctably into Miller’s devastating world.
What elevates Adam Mitchell‘s production to a special category of excellence is Caroline McKenzie‘s portrayal of Mrs Loman. Here is an American saint, a woman who could so understandably have told her husband she’d had enough of his endless justifications for never ever making a success of his job. But she never does. Instead, she is his rock. McKenzie could hardly have been better cast; in word and gesture, beautifully understated at all times, she is love and unconditional loyalty personified in her refusal to countenance, even for a moment, the failure which is Willy and the stuff-up their children represent. The Lomans are a family of tragic losers, apparently unable – or unwilling – to face the reality of their own selves. Willy Loman is failure-in-chief. He has made a mess of life both as family man and employee.
In the days before women became accepted into the workplace, it was millions of other Mrs Lomans who, without fuss or recognition, kept the family unit somehow intact. These were women who, often, were of considerable innate ability, but, because of societal norms and expectations of the era, had virtually no chance of an independent career. And her millions of sisters who, denied the opportunities to make of themselves something other than mother, cook and nanny, poured their often abundant but frustrated energies into maintaining and protecting the family home as an impregnable domestic bastion.
John Stanton does wonders as Loman. Is there a more convincing word-portrait of failure and self-deception than in the lines that Miller gives him? Does he really believe the advice he gives so readily – whether wanted or not – to his sons, Biff (Josh McConville) and Happy (Ben O’Toole), losers both? Willy’s end by suicide is his final failure.
Miller’s skill, indeed genius, in laying bare the tragic tribulations of the Loman family, gives us a theatre piece which deals unblinkingly with themes which are both universal and timeless: loyalty, love, disappointment and failure. This high-calibre Black Swan Theatre production warrants the highest praise.