A friend of mine was recently arguing the case that film is a superior medium to theatre. In his opinion theatre is inflexible and limited, whilst film allows you to reach more people and capture your art forever on celluloid. At the time I was inclined to agree with him. That was until I saw the current production of Death of a Salesman at the Lyric. Deservedly acclaimed in the press, the play made me remember that, when done well, theatre still has a power that entrances audiences and moves them in ways that most movies can only hope to emulate.
Robert Falls’ Chicago production of Death of a Salesman has already picked up four Tony Awards. It’s easy to see why. Using a rotating set and atmospheric lighting, he skilfully manipulates the stage to realise the play’s dream sequences as effectively as any CGI-dependent film director.
Through strong natural performances by the cast, the production achieves a genuine intimacy with its audience, a genuine connection. The obvious passion the actors feel for their material allows them to convey the necessary rawness that fills Arthur Miller’s classic tale of betrayal and the dark side of the American dream.
Miller’s play, of course, revolves around Willy Loman, a travelling salesman past his prime. Throughout the play he struggles with his belief that a hardworking well-liked man can still achieve his dreams in America where profit and the bottom-line prevail. Is the American Dream flawed or is it Willy who doesn’t fit into its plans?
Willy is man stuck in a dream who has lost hope and without hope he is lost. Such is the extent of his despair he begins to contemplate ending his life in order to secure the life insurance money for his family. As if watching a sleepwalker heading towards a busy road, the audience is constantly hoping that Willy will wake up and face reality before it’s too late. Dreams are hard to give up on though and, like a compulsive gambler, Willy always wants one more throw of the dice, still hoping his luck will turn.
Willy’s predicament is summed up in the words of his neighbour, who explains to his son that “he is a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine… A salesman’s got to dream boy.”
The cast in this production are truly excellent. As Willy, Brian Dennehy gives an amazing performance, full of charm and pathos in equal measure. Dennehy is one of those actors whose face is very familiar even if you can’t quite recall where you have seen him before. So, at the risk of sounding all Troy McClure about this, it’s probably worth pointing out that you might remember him from such films as Cocoon and Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet.
The true star of this production is however the award winning actress Claire Higgins who plays Linda Loman; her chemistry with the other performers is considerable and her range never less than impressive. Between them Dennehy and Higgins succeed in drawing the audience into the struggles of the Loman family, giving their characters heart and personality. Capable support is provided by Douglas Henshall and Mark Bazeley as Biff and Happy Loman respectively.
My friend may have been right when he said that a filmmaker has the benefit of being able to capture their art forever, however the beauty of theatre is that the audience is part of the moment and each performance is subtlety different each night. Like roses, beautiful things do not last forever but, as a result, we love them all the more whilst they do. This is an excellent production of a truly great play; it needs to be seen.