Royal Exchange, Manchester.
16 October 2018.
A travelling salesman no longer fit to travel. A home filled with consumer goods that break down before they are even paid for. A once green and leafy neighbourhood concreted over and crammed with new apartment blocks. Willy Loman’s world has become one of increasing disappointment and insecurity, yet he still clings desperately to the wreckage of his very own American Dream.
Sarah Frankcom’s production is attuned to (and at times accentuates) the fluidity and ambiguity of Arthur Miller’s 1940s play. Characters shrug off a jacket and find themselves back in their childhoods, snatches of laughter intrude from another time and place, and the past and the present blur into each other. It’s an elegiac and fractured narrative, as if we are witnessing this increasingly weary salesman’s life flash cruelly before his eyes.
Jazz-inflected percussive music adds to the sense of unease, as it clatters and jars, and the lighting often fades to an encroaching darkness. Leslie Travers’ magnificently expressive design adds layers of meaning. Verdant boughs bear down upon the family home, a constant and crushing reminder of what might have been, echoing not just Willy’s memories of the big elms that used to surround his home, but his (and his sons’) deep longing for “grass and trees and the horizon”. There is little in the way of possessions, scenes play out across a rust-bowl of a stage split into hellish concentric circles. Characters don’t just drift in and out for their assigned appearance in the narrative, Frankcom makes them a more constant presence. For much of the play, Willy’s family, friends and acquaintances are gathered around the stage’s outer circular wall, waiting to step into the salesman’s life, but also seemingly sat in judgement, haunting his every moment.
Just as she did with Our Town, Frankcom takes a classic American play, reinvigorates it and finds relevance for a contemporary audience.
From today’s perspective, there’s something decidedly toxic about the masculinity that Willy seems determined to celebrate and impose upon his two sons (Biff and Happy). They have been coached not nurtured – to be fighters, footballers, go-getters and heart-breakers. When Willy’s brother and son box, it is depicted not as playful sparring but a brutal and squalid encounter.
The three Loman men constantly retreat into an imagined world, unable to cope with the disappointing reality of their lives. Willy’s desperate desire to hear only good news about his sons’ achievements, even though he knows it to be false, seems presciently in tune with today’s post-truth America awash with ‘alternative facts’.
Most strikingly, Don Warrington’s depiction of Willy Loman can be read not purely as a man broken by a lifetime of unrewarded struggle but, to modern eyes, he could be someone exhibiting signs of dementia. Near the end, when Warrington shushes the audience with a chilling playfulness, he appears to have mentally regressed and become almost childlike.
For the play’s first half, Willy’s two suitcases, packed with his wares, sit by the front door. It’s as if he has been stopped in his tracks, his life in limbo, and there’s a restrained quality to proceedings that can occasionally drift towards the soporific. The pace quickens within the second act. As things unravel, characters stride around the stage’s circular tracks and emotions previously held very firmly in check are more keenly felt.
Miller’s slippery narrative is anchored down by the cast’s strong, unshowy performances. Maureen Beattie, as Willy’s wife Linda, is especially affecting – her emotional directness slicing through the family’s simmering tensions. As Biff, the son burdened by both his father’s expectations and secrets, Ashley Zhangazha is superb, a turbulent mix of bravado and vulnerability.
Frankcom’s artfully hazy, subtly ominous production, feels like a perfect match for the shifting sands of Miller’s tragedy. It grips like a bad dream, as with terrifying ease, a lifetime slips away, hope dies and a man falls apart.
Images by Johan Persson