Monumental Miller

Death of a Salesman (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 9 – March 2

Rightfully regarded as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, Arthur Miller’s iconic “Death of Salesman” is an unquestionable classic of the theatre, largely due to its enduring resonance, and Queensland Theatre’s production of the mammoth work leaves audiences with little doubt as to why the play remains so beloved, even 70 years (to the week) after it was first performed on Broadway.

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“Death of a Salesman” comes with all the ingredients of a great tragedy. Its narrative follows 63-year-old salesman Willy Loman (Peter Kowitz) as he struggles to accept his failures and wrong dreams. In his earlier life he experienced some level of success, but now he is a broken man, both professionally and personally, plagued by memories of missed opportunities. Long gone are the days of his sons Biff (Thomas Larkin) and Happy’s (Jackson McGovern) hero worship and shared sniggers at the book-smart neighbour boy Bernard (Ilai Swindells) and his knowledgeable and successful father Charley (Charles Allen). Instead, Willy’s twilight-years reality has become one of scheming towards redemption, while relying on Charley’s generosity to only-just survive, but never succeed. It is an unforgiving existence in which Willy also refuses to relinquish his dreams for this eldest son, despite Biff’s rejection.

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There is a lot of pathos to the story’s exploration of big human-nature themes such as pride, guilt and hope and it is very dialogue-heavy in its apparent exploration of Henry David Thoreau’s succinct observation that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. Arthur Miller’s script has, at its core, a sensitive craftedness infused with imagery, allegory, multi-level titular meaning and the symbolism of planting seeds to thrive as a legacy.

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The last time I saw this play it was in a cosy Greenside theatre on Royale Terrace at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was an appropriately intimate experience of a traditional work of realism. While Queensland Theatre have set the story where it should be in the late 1940s time of hats and handkerchiefs as business attire, the realisation is far from one of conventional realism, which works wonders in bleeding Willy’s time into itself.

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The story’s time and place setting is seen in props, costumes and character accents that inhabit Set Designer Richard Roberts’ deconstructed doll-house staging. World class production values bring multifaceted flashbacks and reminiscences to realisation, as for Willy the past is alive. The flashbacks not only provide psychological insight into his character, but add interest as Willy retreats into idyllic family memories and the glories of his venture capitalist brother Ben (Kevin Hides).

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Verity Hampson’s lighting design takes the audience through transitions of the everyday and into memories in emphasis of the gap between myth and reality. Indeed, perfectly executed lighting transitions transform scenes from sepia-toned of-the-time settings to stylised flashbacks behind multi-use scrim screens. Justin Harrison’s soundscape is also quite superb, whether as subtle suburban street sounds or to signpost the assault of a vivid flashback. Even intermission music is of the era, reflecting the attention to detail that is at the core of this show’s success.

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The cast is uniformly excellent as the story’s almost-all flawed characters. The success of any production of “Death of a Salesman” depends ultimately on the portrayal of its lone man protagonist, battling for purpose and recognition and Kowitz is outstanding as the titular merchant, whether full of false pride and delusion, boastfully bravadoing to his boys or submissively stooping towards his mental and emotional decline. It is a slow-burning performance, not pitiful, as it could easily have been, but poignantly honest and therefore emotionally engaging.

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But Willy’s is not the only hero’s journey being examined. Larkin brings a layered sensitivity to the challenging role of Biff, a man with his own yearning to overcome his adversity and live on the land in opposition to his father’s expectations that be also become a businessman. However, the most powerful performance is probably that of Angie Milliken as Linda Lomen, Willy’s emotionally-supportive but worn-down wife, trying desperately to at-once understand and help her doomed husband. Her resolute monologue defense of her husband’s character to their children is moving enough to hold the entire absorbed Playhouse Theatre audience in her grasp. Despite such dramatic moments, however, the production is not all dourness as suggested by its title, with some light moments and comedy serving to alleviate sombre scenes.

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As the company’s Artistic Director Sam Strong notes in the show’s program notes, “Death of a Salesman” speaks across time to the love and lies at the centre of families. And this character universality is at the core of the success of this production. While there is criticism of American capitalism evident, its currency comes more from its every-man human themes of triumphs and disappointments. It is a long show, as classics often are, but this is because it has so much to say, beyond just its portrait of the promise of ‘the west’ and the Great American Dream that appears in so many of its culture’s literary classics.

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Just as Willy believes that success is defined by money and reputation (“the only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell,” “be liked and you will never want”, he says), the currency of likeability and stories of self-promotion that form the fabric of his life represent the essence of people’s modern online selves, meaning that in 2019, as much as ever, the play still has much to say about the idea of self-perception. Yet while this theme offers resonance it doesn’t overwhelm the play’s essential story. Jason Klarwein’s direction is one of command, but also restraint, in not trying to force the play to be something it is not. And so, its celebration of the old style magic of theatre makes this monumental first installment in the company’s Season of Dreamers, one to which attention must be paid.

Truth on trial

The Crucible

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 7 – 19 May

A crucible is a vessel in which substances are heated to high temperatures; when impure elements are melted away, only the pure parts remain. Metaphorically speaking, it therefore represents the perfect titular description for American playwright Arthur Miller’s award-winning classic “The Crucible”, a play which was itself written as an extended metaphor of the hysteria of McCarthyism in post-World War Two America, during which, in fear of communist influence on American institutions, government officials accused countless supposed sympathisers of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. (Miller himself was questioned by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities and convicted of contempt for his refusal to name others).

The allegorical work is a partially fictionalised narrative that tells of the witch trials that occurred in the isolated theoretic society of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century. The Puritan town’s minister Reverend Parris (Greg Scurr) is shocked to discover his daughter Betty (Sarah Willson), niece Abigail Williams (Claire Argente) and their friends dancing in the forest with his Barbados Slave Tituba (Jessica Meyer). When Betty faints in fright and will not wake, rumours of witchcraft spread throughout the town. While the townsfolk succumb to the sparked hysteria as, one by one, innocent residents are condemned to death, the audience is acutely aware that the pretence stems for Abigail’s desire to be with her former employer and lover John Proctor (Reagan Warner) and want for revenge upon his wife Elizabeth (Elizabeth Best).

Undertaking a production of such as well-crafted work is far from an easy task; the play is dense with historical detail, powerful and evocative phrases and distinctive language features of archaic words and unfamiliar expressions. In the case of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production, these challenges prove no barrier to presenting a polished piece of theatre. Indeed, the actors all beautifully animate the Puritan cadences of dialogue of double negatives and dropped gs, making for some riveting performances as complex and flawed characters struggling to make sense of their experiences.

Warner’s John Proctor commands attention. He is physically, vocally and dramatically imposing as the harsh tongued and deeply flawed but also a courageous protagonist (as with so many of Miller’s heroes), shamed by his affair with Abigail, but ultimately triumphant in his personal integrity. And as his virtuous and composed wife Elizabeth, Best is also outstanding. She plays her as more steadfast the meek (as she is sometimes portrayed), and the dramatic tension is heightened because of it, meaning that even though their characters are emotionally estranged for a large proportion of the play, Warner and Best are especially superb whenever they are together on stage.  Argente makes Abigail physically emboldened by her new found celebrity but could be more menacing in bully of her friends, to truly showcase her vindictiveness in juxtaposition to John’s saintly wife.

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Whether contesting, corrupting or celebrating the law, each of the play’s judges are excellent. Scurr, in particular, rightly portrays Parris as more petty church leader rather than the paranoid and power-hungry tyrant seen in the 1996 film. In fact, there are many noteworthy performances from within the large ensemble of players. In what is arguably the most intense scene in the play, when everything is revealed, Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn is impressive as a physically anxious Mary Warren, brought to court by her master John Proctor to critically testify against her friend Abigail. Even Meyer makes Titiuba more than the easy-caricature that her minor appearances could have made her.

For all its acclaim, “The Crucible” is a long play and I am yet to see a production that does not feel long, and in some regards, this is still the case. Act One is heavy with backstory of character feuds, fractions, suspicions and some dissatisfaction with of a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God. Some off-stage dialogue helps with pacing, however, additional scenes, such as when the show begins with the girls dancing in the forest (a ritual only referred to in the original text), are unnecessary and unnecessarily stylised so at odds with the rest of the play. Rather, simple but effective staging allows the story to speak thorough performances. While the different coloured dresses of the girls are helpful in avoiding initial identity confusion for those unfamiliar with the work, they seem at odds with the strict and tense atmosphere and bleak, restrained Puritan life.

In its show of religious fervour in its worst light, “The Crucible” is an uncomfortable play to watch at times, however in the hands of Brisbane Arts Theatre, it transcends its specific allusions to become an absorbing, suspenseful illustration of the importance of integrity and the need for a commonsense and compassion when truth is on trial. More than a moving story about guilt and redemption, or even the miscarriage of justice that the Salem witchcraft trials represents, it is a drama about collective evil that is sadly all too topical in our post-truth times, given its indictment of group mentalities. And thanks to productions such as this one, it is easy to see why it still stands tall as a classic part of the dramatic canon.