Arthur Miller’s psychological tragedy, Death of a Salesman, is familiar to anybody who has studied it as part of the GCSE curriculum. Its examination of the fragility of dreams, success and the decline of mental health, causes the play to remain relevant decades after it was written. In this production, Don Warrington returns to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester after his blistering King Lear.
Warrington is magnificent as Willy Loman, an ageing salesman who has never achieved the success he dreams of. He is a character out of time, stubbornly believing that hard work and loyalty to his sales firm will result in just rewards. However, as reality sinks in, it becomes clear that Willy’s ideals and values contrast with the materialistic, consumerist American Dream. As he deludes himself, denying that his hopes, dreams and ambition are breaking, Willy is haunted by memories from his past, highlighting the mistakes and missed opportunities that led to this moment. The moment where his life insurance is worth more than anything he has; where he is literally worth more dead than alive.
Don Warrington is mesmerising from the moment he enters the stage, hunched over and burdened with suitcases, perfectly epitomising the weight and pressure that is within his mind. He looks physically and mentally exhausted as he utters his foreboding first line, “It’s all right. I came back“. Instantly, Warrington’s Willy Loman is a captivating, empathetic and tragic character. With an impeccable New York accent, Warrington flawlessly renders Willy as a broken man, yet perfectly captures the energy, hope and joy in the scenes that are constructed from his memories. He genuinely appears at least ten years younger in the brighter scenes from his past, making the deterioration of his present self even more tragic. It is truly remarkable acting and is utterly heart-breaking to watch.
The performances from the rest of the Loman family are equally brilliant. Maureen Beattie is superb as Linda Loman; remaining fiercely devoted to her husband, supporting him through thick and thin. Caught between her two sons and her husband, Beattie beautifully renders Linda as an equally tragic figure as her husband.
Buom Tihngang and Ashley Zhangazha are exceptionally talented as Happy and Biff, the Loman brothers. Tihngang delightfully depicts the flippant, womanising side of Happy’s character, yet emphasises the same inherent traits as his father that creates a disturbing reflection of Willy Loman, sadly indicating that the cycle of self deception will continue.
Zhangazha is phenomenal as Biff, struggling under the unrealistic expectations of his father. This estranged relationship with his father is captivating to watch. The unparalleled tension between these two opposing characters, and fantastic actors, is spellbinding, leading to a powerful climax of the play, which left me in stunned silence. It is not surprising that Ashley Zhangazha has recently won a Stage Debut Award for Best Performance in a Musical for Guys and Dolls, which was recently at the Royal Exchange. He is an exciting, incredibly talented actor.
Staging Death of a Salesman in the round at the Royal Exchange adds a level of intimacy with Miller’s characters which compliments the high level of acting. Leslie Travers‘ stunning set design reinforces this intimacy by creating a circle arena, sparsely decorated and bare. Characters remain on stage throughout the action, in the shadows, brilliantly transporting you inside Willy Loman’s head. Ever haunted by memories of his past, the characters encircle Willy, claustrophobically creating anxiety and visually representing what Willy has lost. This is particularly evident with Ben, Charley and Bernard, paragons of prosperity, remaining constant figures in the shadows when they are absent from the action of the play. Their eternal presence teases Willy, reminding him of what success looks like, exposing his failures. It is masterful staging, which perfectly matches the psychological nature of Miller’s play.
Jack Knowles‘ astonishing lighting design also represents Willy Loman’s conscience. Knowles’ design brilliantly juxtaposes harsh white lighting of the present reality with warmer lighting for the scenes which take place inside Willy’s memories. This seamlessly creates a shift between reality and illusion but also emphasises the harsh bleakness of Willy’s present life, compared to the warm world of hopes, dreams and opportunity. Like the stage design, the lighting invites you inside Willy Loman’s head, constructing an intimate connection with the play’s protagonist.
Death of a Salesman is a long play. Running over three hours, the play demands a high level of attention. Its length allows you to emotionally invest in Arthur Miller’s complex characters, which are beautifully rendered by a phenomenally talented cast. Being so invested with these characters made the play even more tragic for me. My heart was left as broken as Willy Loman’s dreams.