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.

Helpmann highs and lows

This week saw the presentation of 43 Helpmann Awards in honour of the most outstanding live performances in Australia in the past year, two of which I found particularly notable.

Best Male Actor in a Play: Colin Friels – “Death of a Salesman” (Belvoir)

How wonderful it is to see recognition of the performances within productions of classic texts such as “Death of a Salesman”. I’ve only seen an Edinburgh Fringe production of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece and I long to see it staged in Brisbane, such is my affection for the story of Willy Loman’s rapture for and betrayal by The American Dream. Despite the humility of the Close Up Theatre production, fortunately, its reality did not transcend the work’s place in the theatrical cannon as the greatest play of the 20th century. So much more than the story of a salesman, this is like Gatsby for the everyman and an essential examination of the nature of Aristotelian tragedy in a modern context. Indeed, the poignancy and honesty of the story of the disintegration of Willy Loman’s world when he is made redundant resonates now as much as ever.

Colin Friels can certainly act. He showed this in the Queensland Theatre Company’s “Red” earlier this year when he effortless took the audience on a physical and emotional interpretation of volatile, self-absorbed American painter Mark Rothko’s journey working on his series of artworks for The Four Seasons restaurant. Unfortunately, Friels was not as well-served by the show’s production elements as he could have been. The authentic set was impressive, but could have been used more effectively and though the script contained many thought-provoking monologues of Rothko’s passionate intellectualism, they were overwritten almost to the point of drowning the story in their verbosity.

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Best Musical: “Legally Blonde – The Musical”

Am I the only person not tickled pink about this? Because when it comes to “Legally Blonde  – The Musical”, I just don’t get it. Yes, it is superficially colourful and camp but is that enough? Since I first became acquainted with the stage Elle Woods in the UK, to me, the answer has been no. Hyperactivity alone does not create a wow factor and comparative to other tightly choreographed shows, it lacks the triumph of a high profile show.

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