The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 2
Another day, another RSC production. But this time not actual Shakespeare! In fact, not anything Elizabethan/Jacobean, but instead, an Arthur Miller classic, Death of a Salesman, starring Harriet Walters, Antony Sher and Alex Hassell (the latter two of whom were last seen in Henry IV parts 1 & 2). This production certainly lives up to the reputation of the famous play, and this is almost entirely due to the power and energy of the acting – in particular that of the three leads plus Sam Marks as Happy.
So this is the low down for those of you who don’t know the plot; Willy Loman (Sher) comes back from a failed business trip late at night to his Brooklyn house in 1949. He is greeted by his wife, Linda (Walters), whilst his two grown-up sons, Biff (Hassell) and Happy listen from their old bedroom. It transpires that Willy is on the verge of retirement, and that, as Linda puts it, “he’s dying” (not even a spoiler, because the clue is in the name). The whole story takes place over about 24 hours, although the time covered is much greater; Willy’s mind constantly darts back between the present, memories of a happier past, and hopes for the future so great that they become more real than reality to him.
One of the most famous techniques, in fact, is the mixture of social critique and psychological flashbacks, and this was done reliably well by director Gregory Doran, through the use of lighting changes, where the translucent screens of terraced apartments faded into dappled green leaves. I was wondering if these screens were made this way to represent the fragility of city life and indeed the fragility of the life constructed by lies that Willy has created for himself and his family.
Walters for me was the stand-out performer of this production; although Sher had amazing variety and strength even whilst Willy was losing all of his, Walters’ speech at the end was easily the most moving part of the play. Hassell was also very impressive in playing both the confident younger boy and the tortured lost man – having seen both this and Prince Hal, I’m really looking forward to (hopefully) seeing his Henry V this winter. Marks provided some much needed comic relief at moments with his switch between Happy’s family self and his womaniser self, whilst also giving the role the necessary depth.
To be honest with you, I can’t find a fault with this production; but I can’t quite give it full marks. The acting was superb, the music was fitting and the set was well-done, but I felt like a lot of it was simply another classic production of another classic play. Unlike the Old Vic‘s The Crucible last year, there just wasn’t that wow factor, for me anyway. That being said, this is worth going to see simply for Walters’ poignant speech at the end; it’ll give you shivers.
Death of a Salesman at Noel Coward Theatre: 4.5/5 stars