Death of a Salesman: All Talk and No Action

All talk and no action, until the second half.

2 stars

Returning to The Royal Exchange after his success as aging patriarch King Lear in 2016, Don Warrington plays Willy Loman… another aging patriarch. Years spent as a travelling salesman all over America does nothing for Loman in his dotage, and Willy is confronted by the crippling reality of loneliness in his last few hours.

Yo-yoing between the crumbling present and the rose tinted past, we see that Willy was idolised by his sons Happy (Buom Tihngang) and Biff (Ashley Zhangazha). In turn they are adored by Willy, who believes that his sons (Biff especially) can snatch up all the opportunities America has to offer, if only they would reach out to grab them. Willy wants to live vicariously through his sons, and all the characters in this play are continuously disappointing when the veneer slips, and they see each other for who they are.

Death of a Salesman Biff
Left to right: Buom Tihngang as Happy and Ashley Zhangazha as Biff

The crippling pressure of expectation placed on Biff’s shoulders is palpable. The sons are eager to please. Too eager, in Buom’s case: his puppy dog acting leaves much to be desired, there is little else to his younger character than a caricature of a smile and, ‘I’ve gained weight dad, can you tell?’

His present day character leaves much to be desired, too.

I wonder if Death of a Salesman is so laden with subtext that the characters suffer. Are they relegated to surface level¬†personalities in order to emulate Arthur Miller’s agenda? Happy’s character has ‘ruin[ed]’ women, he womanizes, lies, ditches his father to chase skirt. Willy’s stock phrase ‘isn’t that remarkable?’ start to grate a bit too, too often being touted around like it means something.

Buom wasn’t much better in The Royal Exchange’s production of Guys and Dolls, but Zhangazha impressed me then and impresses me now. He manages to zap some real tension into the production. Scenes between Biff and his mother Linda (Maureen Beattie) are especially fraught, but tinged with sadness and love.

Death of a Salesman 2
Don Warrington as Willy Loman

Willy is tired. He has put his 30+ years into the business, and where are his returns? Doesn’t The American Dream promise something in return for all those long hours and late nights? At the grand old age of 63 the rose tinted spectacles slip. Sleepless nights are spent wondering where it all went wrong, with a focus on Biff.

If only he had made something of himself.

The performance was around three hours long. For all of Arthur Miller’s rich subtext, there’s a bit too much that is said, instead of acted. Warrington does little more than shout his lines, stumbling around the stage, occasionally raising a shaking, decrepit hand. I imagine it would be hard to give nuance to a character who is perpetually outraged, shocked, and disillusioned for three hours. It’s all talk and no action, at least until the second half, where the performance thankfully picks up in pace, no longer confined to one singular setting.

It is hard, I think, to appreciate the characters as individuals because they are all so steadfastly part of Miller’s mechanism: subject A represents this about The American Dream, and so on and so forth. It becomes predictable. When Biff discovers his father has an affair while on the road it is not quite the revelation it is made out to be: The American Dream is corrupt.

Is nothing authentic in this play? The subtext is just that: the characters are living a lie but this too comes across as unoriginal and contrived. What could have been a gritty play  about a family at breaking point is reduced to an allegory.

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