Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Tuesday 16th October, 2018
“I don’t know what the future is. I don’t know … what I’m supposed to want.”
Biff Loman’s despairing articulation of the madness that surrounds him is one of dozens of classic theatre lines that serve to perfectly summarise the simmering chaos that is Death of a Salesman – the 1949 Pulitzer-Prize-winning stage play by celebrated American writer Arthur Miller.
The salesman in question is Biff’s father – Willy Loman – a proud family man living the post-war American Dream. Or is he?
All is not well in the Loman household, Will Loman is earning less and less as his sales figures begin to fall – just as household expenses begin to rise. And his frustration and fury inevitably gets directed towards his grown-up sons, neither of whom seems willing or able to pull his own weight.
This Royal Exchange in-house adaptation directed by Sarah Frankcom is an intelligently dark and sultry production, a performance that seems to pull away in a high gear at a very slow pace before eventually hitting top speed as it approaches a blistering and dramatic end.
In the lead role, Don Warrington puts in a huge, commanding performance as the no-nonsense father-of-two who is constantly on the road looking to sell, sell, sell. But three decades of dedicated but ultimately unrewarded service to the same employer have taken their mental toll, and he knows it. Warrington induces sympathy by playing a man who is ultimately undergoing a mental breakdown; yet he is not faultless in his actions and his behaviour towards his sons and wife is often brutal and difficult to watch.
Equally outstanding is Maureen Beattie in the role of the matriarch Linda. Linda starts off as a perfectly doting and fully subservient all-American housewife – but a rather sinister transformation seems to take place in a very gradual way, one where it seems that her ever more desperate attempts to keep the peace might actually be making things a lot worse. Beattie is just brilliant as the subjugated housewife who feels she can change things for the better through just force of will.
And in the third major role, Ashley Zhangazha delivers a stunning performance as Biff Loman – again undergoing a very subtle yet profound transformation from a bullied young man under his father’s shadow to a much stronger, wiser and far more defiant individual who eventually decides he’s had enough. Zhangazha’s depiction of confusion as Biff struggles to understand why his father is so cruel to him is outstanding, perfectly striking the balance between defending himself whilst also avoiding further harming his father’s already delicate state.
Death of a Salesman beautifully depicts the appalling damage that can be wreaked when a war of attrition breaks out in family life. Neither side is able to leave the other and find a new family, as such – so both end up holding their ground and fighting it out till the bitter end.
This particular production of Death of a Salesman conjures up a mysteriously atmospheric mood, this is a semi-sinister thriller probably unlike anything else that you’ll see in theatre world. A relatively simple plot is boosted and transformed into a show that exudes confusion and anger, yet it does that in a rather appealing way – all thanks to strong yet subtle visuals and sound, and ultimately what is truly world-class performance delivery from several of the performing cast.
Photography: Johan Persson
|Visual pleasure||A beautifully decorated stage, with a rooftop topiary arrangement that any professional gardener would be proud of. Immaculately presented suits and dresses helped to set the 1940s/1950s Americana scene, firmly placing the action into temporal and geographical context.||4|
|Auditory pleasure||Very pleasing to hear plenty of background filler music being used to set the mood and create an ambience of its own. This heavily contributed to the overall sense of intrigue and uncertainty that permeated every part of the performance.||4|
|Architecture & Theme||The Royal Exchange have delivered an excellent rendition of a brilliantly well-written piece of dramatic theatre. All the pieces seemed to fall together nicely: the tension, the uncertainty, the conundrum as to who’s to blame for the family breakdown and what they could do to break out of it – so many differing components came across.||5|
|Artistic delivery||Outstanding acting performances that commanded attention throughout the show. The intensity levels just grew and grew as the performance went on, each performer continued to deliver even when not in a speaking role, delivering facial expressions and body language that continued to add subtle hints of where the plot was about to go.||5|
|Overall impact||Emotions seemed to go off in multiple directions during this performance, but it was all drawn to a close at just the right moment – specifically in those crucial moments before on-stage depictions of arguing and bickering become annoying. The lasting impression is one of not knowing who is to blame for the situation that the Loman family found themselves in, which is a testimony to the quality of the writing and the quality of the performances that were delivered.||5|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|