Review: Death of a Salesman (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Dec 3 – 22, 2021
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Callan Colley, Jacek Koman, Josh McConville, Philip Quast, Bruce Spence, Thuso Lekwape, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Brigid Zengeni, Alan Zhu
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Willy Loman is finally waking up to the fact that so many of life’s promises are bound to amount to nothing. The 63 year-old salesman has worked hard for decades, completely invested in the American Dream, but with the impending certainty of death, comes the realisation that he had been sold a big fat lie. It is now 72 years since Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman had first appeared on Broadway. Much has changed in the ways we live, yet the play’s central ideas seem never to lose their pertinence. Capitalism continues to broaden its grip over the very values with which we navigate existence, and no matter how many times we hear Willy Loman’s story, it appears few of us can avoid his fate. Such is the control, that desire for money and status, has over so many.

In her faithful 21st century rendition, director Paige Rattray has ensured a presentation stunning in its aesthetics, with exquisite design work occupying our attention over the near three-hour duration. The legacy of Edward Hopper in particular, is referenced beautifully in its evocation of 1940’s Americana. Paul Jackson’s lights steal the show, painterly and sublimely dramatic, in their bold manifestations of every tragic scene.

David Fleischer’s set design alters proportions of the proscenium, in order that we may obtain more intimate glimpses into the small lives being explored, whilst conveying the decrepitude of the Loman world view that many of us inevitably share. Costumes by Teresa Negroponte make statements about aspiration and disappointment, as they help transport us to a nostalgia that is more disconcerting than wistful. Music and sound design by Clemence Williams is noir-tinged, almost macabre in its grand invocations of regret and broken dreams.

Aspects of the performance utilises the device of a Greek Chorus, thankfully in an understated manner, which help manufacture a sense of gloom, and to prevent the vast space from falling too frequently into an unbearable emptiness. There is however a certain lack of soulfulness in the staging. Undoubtedly we witness a lot of passion being displayed, most notably by Jacek Koman who plays an irrepressible Willy, but the ensemble is not always convincing in their efforts, to represent the spirit of a play that aims to stand up for the little guy.

As Linda, actor Helen Thomson takes every opportunity to bring levity to a dark tale, but a lack in chemistry between the Loman spouses, has a tendency to make the mother and wife character seem somewhat disconnected. Callan Colley and Josh McConville are the sons, Happy and Biff respectively, both amiable personalities, if slightly surface in their depictions of a collapsing patriarchy. McConville does however, bring the show to a satisfying crescendo, late in the piece, when Biff unravels and exposes the truths about his torment.

Willy Loman’s death is important. We will all go about our lives, finding individual ways to figure out what is true and what are lies, based on all manner of evidence and introspection, but featuring prominently in Arthur Miller’s play is the undeniable centrepiece of a person’s death. The decisions we make, the things we value, and the way we love, should never be divorced from the singular fact of certain death, yet we seem in our American Dreams to forever act as though the self is immortal. “You can’t take it with you” is a common refrain, if only we care to listen.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au