Death of a Salesman review – absorbing production captures the dehumanising wallop of capitalism

·4 min read

Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer theatre
Arthur Miller’s critique of the American dream is given evergreen relevance in Paige Rattray’s intensely satisfying staging

The American dream says anyone’s success is assured by self-reliance, a streak of adventure and a smile. It is a durable, muscular mythology built on the notion fortune favours the likeable individual who can slash through the jungle’s undergrowth. Failure is down to personal flaws such as laziness, rather than the rapacious reality of corporate overlords keeping labour costs low.

Playwright Arthur Miller was a dogged critic of capitalism’s pyramid marketing scam. The working-class Brooklyn alpha male at the centre of his 1949 play Death of a Salesman is trying to keep up appearances but is ultimately crushed by his material pursuit, and not for the first time in Miller’s oeuvre.

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In Paige Rattray’s new production of this classic work for Sydney Theatre Company, salesman Willy Loman is never alone on stage, surrounded by characters plucked from future scenes to witness his inexorable nervous breakdown, like Sunday drivers rubbernecking at a road accident or a choir gathering to ultimately harmonise a requiem. It’s an interesting way to fill a large stage, if occasionally distracting.

Rattray has cast well, with Jacek Koman channelling fury and passionate pride into Loman, stripped of his salary base in a portent of the redundancy to come. He is matched by Josh McConville as son Biff, who rages at his father’s refusal to accept his shortcomings, while Helen Thomson evokes pathos and dignity as Willy’s wife Linda, imploring her sons to support their father, given “he’s only a little boat looking for a harbour”.

Callan Colley has a magnetic presence as sporty son Happy, blind to the end to how the capitalist dream is killing his father, while Bruce Spence uses his comedic dexterity and height to get all the juice out of the Lomans’ neighbour Charley as well as doubling as a scene-stealing drunk waiter.

The simple set is a cavernous rendering of the Lomans’ living quarters, sparsely furnished with a card table, chairs and battered refrigerator, the ceiling paint peeling: a domestic setting writ large and crumbling.

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But how to stop this play from becoming a museum piece? Travelling salesmen surely grew just about extinct as the 20th century closed and the internet reached peak use. Wouldn’t the Willy of today be a non-unionised gig economy worker, maybe a food delivery cyclist knocked off his bicycle at the traffic lights?

I’m being facetious, not least because directors have only so much licence. The estate of Arthur Miller, of course, would block liberties with the playwright’s script, as director Simon Stone discovered in 2012 when he was forced to reinstate both the epilogue he’d cut from the play and Willy’s method of destruction in the denouement.

But one thing Stone kept was his cast’s Australian accents for relatability among a local audience. It might have been a useful strategy here too, given Koman’s European inflections and Thomson’s occasional Strine sometimes audibly place the pair poles apart from their characters’ Brooklynese.

The truth, of course, is that the growing disparity between rich and poor in the US, UK or Australia today marks Death of a Salesman with evergreen relevance. Willy and Linda bemoan that their appliances break down before they can pay them off, that the achievement of a mortgage being paid rings hollow when the house is emptied of children. Today, generations will never own property because their government has purposefully distorted the market, unless they withdraw funds for insanely huge housing deposits from the bank of mum and dad.

The play’s masculine folklore of the pioneering forefather, the sons vying for their father’s approval, the father allowing pride to get in the way of expressing filial love, still resonate too of course. “Isn’t that remarkable?” realises Willy, “Biff, he loves me, he always loved me.”

The epiphany is too late in the piece, Willy having devoted a lifetime to contradictions about what he wants from his sons that Biff cannot reconcile. Willy finally confirms his paternal adoration, or at least, he’s no loveless patriarch like, say, Succession’s Logan Roy, for whom life is a fight for a knife in the mud, especially between his children.

To waste too much time on pity for Willy, however, might blind the audience to Miller’s deeper point that there was – and is – something decaying behind the smile of America’s big industrial complex. Rattray has captured the dehumanising wallop of capitalism for those on the bottom with an intensely satisfying production. Absorbing to the end, the run time didn’t seem as long as the almost three hours that went by, including the interval.

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