The 20th century’s ‘best play’ is tragically relevant. LaPaglia’s salesman will convince you of that

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Death of a Salesman ★★★★½
Her Majesty’s Theatre, until October 15

More than 70 years after it was written, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman retains an eerie relevance. Its themes of failed ambition, toxic masculinity and the lie of the American dream easily transpose to the modern Australian context, where costs of living rise in tandem with housing and job insecurity. Perhaps that’s why there have been so many local productions of this classic lately, from Sydney Theatre Company’s 2021 staging to Hearth Theatre’s travelling run (which comes to The Round in Nunawading next week).

From left: Josh Helman, Anthony LaPaglia, Alison Whyte and Sean Keenan in a scene from Death of a Salesman.Credit: Wayne Taylor

The star power might be what attracts many punters to Neil Armfield’s big-scale production, exclusive to Melbourne, with celebrated actor Anthony LaPaglia making his Australian theatre debut in the lead role of delusional, depressed salesman Willy Loman. Indeed, when the actor appears on stage the audience bursts into applause. He plays Willy’s descent into madness convincingly, particularly in scenes where the character is alone, talking to himself – stuttering, looping, a snake eating its own tail.

This production is creative while staying true to Miller’s tragic vision. Set designer Dale Ferguson renders the entire stage as Ebbets Field, the site of a core memory.

The other characters sit motionless on the bleachers looking directly at Willy; at times, they appear in a window like ghosts. It’s an inspired device to accompany Willy’s increasingly unreliable narration and hallucinations, actualising his pool of memories and the people who populate them. It’s fortified by intermittent music on flute and strings, lending an almost filmic quality.

This production is creative while staying true to Miller’s tragic vision.Credit: Sam Tabone

The complexities in the core family unit – Willy’s loyal wife Linda (Alison Whyte) and his man-child sons, womaniser Happy (Sean Keenan) and directionless Biff (Josh Helman) – are teased out through strong performances and supported by the ensemble cast.

Whyte’s Linda is equally tender and furious, and her monologues – including the powerful, shaking finale – are among the show’s best. Biff is a reflection and projection of his father’s own unrealised dreams, and Helman’s performance holds these multitudes – he is full of pathos as both the bright-eyed teenager who discovers his father’s betrayal, and the 34-year-old crushed under the weight of his ongoing expectations. A climactic scene between LaPaglia and Helman shows both actors’ emotional versatility and dramatic control.

The play’s three-hour runtime passes quickly thanks to these compelling performances. It is, of course, not a happy ending for the Lomans, as it can never be a truly happy ending for anyone under the bright lights of capitalism – this striking production makes that message undeniably clear.

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