Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman

20/06/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s no doubting the power and tragic beauty of this Arthur Miller play: I remember its strength from sixth-form English lessons; even reading around the classroom, it seemed to come alive. On stage and film, I have always found it utterly compelling, a desperately sad – and sadly desperate – illumination of our times.

Okay, so the specifics are late-forties New York, but Willy Loman is an everyman, and his predicament still common to those of us who live in capitalist societies around the world.  We are sold a dream: we are in charge of our own destinies. Work hard, and you will get somewhere. Compete, and you can be the best. Buy these products; owning them will show others what you’re worth. But for Willy, the dream he’s bought in to is crumbling: he isn’t great; he’s ordinary. And he’s lost his edge. He’s a salesman who no longer sells, and corporate America spits him out. Willy is outraged to discover he’s been had, and rails against the boss that now deems him obsolete: “You can’t eat the orange, and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.” But his rage is impotent: the odds are stacked against him. Howard does indeed discard him, and Willy is left bereft, forced to confront the reality that his life has been a sham. His house is small and crumbling; his children haven’t changed the world. He can’t even grow beets in his yard, for pity’s sake. And now, when he’s old and tired, he’s left frantic and worried: how can he make ends meet?

This touring production (by Royal & Derngate, Northampton, in association with Cambridge Arts Theatre) has a thoroughly modern feel. It’s not that the period has changed, exactly, it’s just been made less prominent. The minimalist stage, with its fizzing neon illumination – THE LAND OF THE FREE – gives an eerie sense of transience and flimsiness. Costumes are subtly contemporary in style; Howard’s voice-recorder is tiny and looks like today’s technology, but there’s no suggestion it has more than one function. Howard’s reaction to this piece of kit is illustrative too: Thom Tuck (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats as the excellent Scaramouche Jones) is delightfully brash and insensitive, showing off about how much money he’s spent on this vanity item, even as he refuses to grant Willy a living wage. “Ask your sons,” he tells Willy, blissfully unaware of his own hypocrisy. “Now’s no time for pride.”

Nicholas Woodeson is perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality. We are frustrated by his refusal to accept a job offer from Charley (Geff Francis), but we understand it too: Howard is wrong; Willy’s pride is all he has left. The anger that spills out of him in response to Linda’s concern is utterly convincing too: he doesn’t want her to worry about him, to prop him up because he’s down. He wants her to be impressed by him, and he’s self-aware enough to know she pities him these days. Tricia Kelly plays Linda with real heart; her anguish, although quieter, is every bit as real as her husband’s, and her epilogue speech is delivered with unbearable dignity. It makes me weep.

I think it’s the direction that makes this production so good: Abigail Graham has done a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. We know what they’re all feeling, and can’t help but empathise, even when they’re behaving as badly as they can. Indeed, George Taylor’s dysfunctional Biff is the most fully realised I have ever seen. Infidelities, theft, cruelty: none of these are hidden from our view. Because flawed people are people too, and we’re all deserving of respect.

This is a superb production of a truly great play. It’s on at the King’s until 24th June, and the tour continues elsewhere until 15th July. I urge you to try to catch it if you can.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Crucible

Royal Exchange - THE CRUCIBLE Jonjo O'Neill (John Proctor) background Sam Cox (Giles Corey), Leah Haile (Betty Paris) photographer Jonathan Keenan Royal Exchange - THE CRUCIBLE Peter Guinness (Dept Governor Thomas Danforth) & Stephen Kennedy (Rev. Samuel Parris) photographer Jonathan Keenan

23/09/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is, undoubtedly, one of the great plays of the twentieth century. Written in the early 1950s, it was based around actual events that unfolded in the Puritan community of Salem Massachusetts in 1689; it was also Miller’s opportunity to openly air his feelings about a current event, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist ‘witch’ hunt, without fear of retribution. The similarities were there for all to interpret, but Miller was above reproach, as he could argue that he was simply retelling a slice of history – even though, on closer examination, it appears that he took considerable liberties with the facts. Luckily, nobody bothered to check.

The Royal Exchange’s latest reinterpretation, directed by Caroline Steinbeis, is fascinating. It takes place on a stripped, circular dais across which the sizeable cast act and interact with considerable skill, so much so that when they take their final bow, you’re amazed to realise how many people are actually involved in the proceedings. It’s no longer a period piece – there’s not a stovepipe hat or lace collar in sight. The male actors wear clothing that could easily fit into any rural community of the past thirty years, while the women are dressed in frumpy, near identical dresses, emphasising how much they are made to conform to the expectations of the God-fearing men who surround them.

We’ve seen many versions of The Crucible, but few that delineate the various strands of the tale as clearly and powerfully as this one does, and, in an age where political and sociological witch hunts have become an everyday occurrence, the story seems more prescient than ever. As John Proctor, Jonjo O’ Neill gives a dynamic performance, his strident Northern Irish accent lending his final scenes added power, while Ria Zmitrowicz’s portrayal of the hapless Mary Warren is also a highlight; who knew that there was so much comedy to be mined from her role?

But it’s perhaps unfair to single out individual performances, when this is so undeniably an ensemble piece; there are, frankly, no false notes here.

The Exchange is famed for its ‘wow’ moments and, in the final stretches of the play, that slightly inverted dais is suddenly transformed into a gathering pool of water under a jaw-dropping rainstorm – through which the protagonists are obliged to wade. Coming as it does during Proctor’s final confession, this seems to us to symbolise the way in which a truth can irresistibly spread, to engulf all those who would seek to adapt it to suit their own ends. It is also, perhaps, an allusion to ideas of rebirth and baptism. Others will undoubtedly have their own interpretations; whatever, it will certainly stimulate much after-show conversation as you head for home.

This is a superior production, beautifully staged and expertly acted. Don’t miss it.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney and Susan Singfield

The Crucible

Unknown

4/12/14

The Old Vic theatre company, as directed by Yoel Farber, takes on Arthur Miller’s near legendary play and arranges to have it beamed to a cinema screen near you. What’s not to like? Particularly when the interpretation is as compelling as this version, which stars Richard Armitage as a brooding, macho John Proctor and Anna Madely as his much put-upon wife, Elizabeth. The play of course, centres on the Salem witch trials, a device that Miller originally employed as an allegory about the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950’s. Here the characters are compelled to talk in strong Lancastrian accents – possibly to evoke comparisons with the fate of the Pendle witches, or perhaps to point out that witch hunts can happen just about anywhere? I’m not entirely sure of the reasons behind the decision, but the fact is that it works brilliantly, making Miller’s ageless dialogue sing in a way I’ve never heard it before.

In a note perfect cast, it’s hard to single out highlights but Adrian Schiller’s take on the difficult role of beleaguered cleric, Reverend John Hale,  is a particular delight; and how amazing to see William Gaunt as the white-haired and irascible Giles Corey, evoking fond childhood memories of watching him play a young superhero spy in The Champions; what a decade-spanning career that has been! The standout scenes are the ones in which the ‘possessed’ girls, under the tutelage of Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley) crank the volume up to eleven. It’s powerful stuff this, and time has not dulled its cutting edge. Proctor’s final ‘confession’ is frankly the stuff of heartbreak and a demonstration of the way in which religion can be turned to support the forces of evil. A superb production and a rare opportunity to see the Old Vic in all its glory without paying for train tickets to London and a night in a hotel.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney