16 June 2015

Death of a Salesman at the Noël Coward Theatre

My theatre-going has two main strands, gorging myself on new plays in small theatres and feasting on the classics in large ones. The later is sometimes to revisit some favourites but more often it is to fill in embarrassing gaps in my theatrical experience. Gaps do not get much bigger that Death of a Salesman, though recently seen The Crucible came close.

That meant that I would have been tempted by almost any old version of Death of a Salesman that came my way so I was very lucky that the first one to do so came from the RSC and came with a formidable reputation. A lot of that formidable reputation came from Antony Sher who I had spent the best part of six hours watching on stage last December in Henry IV 1 and 2.

I can afford to pay for expensive theatre tickets but it irks me to do so when so many West End shows are average at best. What pay £80 for an average West End show when you can see one average, two good and one excellent shows in small  theatres for the same price? That means that when I go to West End theatres I normally go high up and that is what I did this time. My Grand Circle seat A16 still cost me £37.50.

The view from there was excellent and I much prefer to look down at the stage from up on high than to look up at it from the stalls. Looking down also means you can see the depth of the stage better. This time it also meant that I could see the upstairs bedroom clearly though not a lot happened there.

The view was obscured by the safety rail, another reason why the ticket was so "cheap", but this was not a huge problem and all I had to  do was sit up a little  when the action was in the house (which it was most of the time) and slide down a little when it moved to the front of the stage  which was, at times, a  street, a bar and an office.

The play was a slow moving tale of an American family, not unlike Long Day's Journey into Night, and it was the telling of the tale that mattered, not how it ended. Which is just as well as the main element of the ending was given away in the play's title and the secondary element was suggested shortly into the play. And that is how I like things. Endings are relatively short and while they are important the much longer journey to get there is more so, especially as a cute ending is only really cute the first time whereas a great journey rewards repeating.

This journey was led by the salesman, Willy Loman, who at 63 years old was looking to swap his travelling role for one based in New York where he lived. He was encouraged in this by his wife Linda. They also had to contend with their two sons, Biff and Happy, who were both living at home and struggling to get a start on life. Complicating the picture was Willy's older brother, Uncle Ben, who had made his fortune in Africa and who appeared, ghost like, to talk to Willy.

This combination of generations and circumstances allowed Arthur Miller to explore the American Dream from several angles and in some depth, which he does passionately but without prejudice - there are winners as well as losers and the losers made their choices along the way.

While by no means dominating the story Willy Loman filled large chunks of it and so the performance of Antony Sher was central to the performance and he was utterly magnificent. It was hard to believe that Willy Loman had once been Falstaff. The rest of the small cast had very important roles to play to and they were all very good.

Death of a Salesman had been collecting five star reviews with ease and while I do not award stars myself I can easily see that they were justified. This was an iconic production of an iconic play.

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