April 24, 2006 | by  |
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Death of a Salesman

By Arthur Miller
Directed by Susan Wilson
Circa Theatre 1 April – 6 May

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was voted the best play of the twentieth century. So I suppose it’s an understatement for me to say it’s pretty good.

I studied the ‘American classic’ for Bursary English. We had a tiny teacher who wore big clothes and cute shoes. I liked the play, it was depressing and American and full of easy quotes to remember for the exam. (“Biff is a lazy Bum”). I readily accepted a chance to review the show. It’s fascinating to see how plays you study as a text translate onto the stage.

It was a Saturday night, Circa was crowded. It was opening night. I stole a sausage roll from the private function and my companion got told off by the waiter.

The play was amazing. There was this eerie feeling before it started like you knew something big was going to happen. Kind of like the pause before they announce who is going be kicked off a reality TV show.

The play is centred on the breakdown of Willy Loman. At 60, he is failing as a salesman and his two sons have not lived up to his expectations. His long suffering wife Linda must pretend she doesn’t know he wants to kill himself and that he is receiving money from their neighbour whom he loathes. Oh it is distressing. Willy is lying to himself and his family, he thinks they will succeed and he knows that they won’t. Of course Miller’s play is far deeper than my pithy summary. At the play’s heart is a criticism of the American dream which, although it has soured Willy’s life, he still clings on to for dear hope. In a way, although it has destroyed him it is all that he has left.

The cast was a great showcase of what professional theatre has to offer in New Zealand. George Henare’s portrayal of Willy Loman couldn’t be faulted. The character of Willy is extremely complex: he drifts off into dream sequences and explodes into angry rages. He is losing his grip on reality but can’t figure out where it all went wrong. His biggest comfort is the memory of his brother Ben, who “went into the jungle at 17 and when he came out at 21 by God he was rich.” I was completely convinced by Henare’s performance and I did cry when he died. (Don’t be miffed that I just ruined the ending, the title virtually gives it away.)

All of the other characters were performed brilliantly. I just had one niggle with Jennifer Ludlam, who played Linda, Willy’s wife. Obviously in such an iconic American play the use of the American accent is an important aspect of the character. Ludlam had a tendency to swing from a Bostonian accent to a Kiwi one mid sentence. Biff and Happy, played by Jason Whyte and Simon Vincent respectively, were both rather nice to look at (don’t underestimate the pulling power of eye candy) and very talented – and as overly boisterous teenagers in Willy’s dream sequences they kept the play alive. A particular stand out for me was KC Kelly. Despite wearing generous knickerbockers he was great as Charlie, the Loman’s neighbour.

Miller gave extensive stage directions and the Circa production has followed these successfully – from the leaf motif in the lighting to the trickly flute music that accompanies Willy’s dreams. The set had two storeys, a kitchen and bedroom downstairs and Biff and Happy’s bedroom above. The big ‘40s style refrigerator was perfect at placing the play in a certain time period, as were the costumes. Director Susan Wilson has done a great job of making the Circa production lively and emotional.

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