Theatre: Death of a Salesman

By Dionne Christian

A new production of Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman highlights the play's continuing relevance.

From left: Death of a Salesman director Jesse Peach with cast members Richard Knowles, Ian Hughes and George Henare. Photo / Richard Robinson
From left: Death of a Salesman director Jesse Peach with cast members Richard Knowles, Ian Hughes and George Henare. Photo / Richard Robinson

As one of modern theatre's most complex and tragically flawed characters, Willy Loman dominates the dreadfully beautiful Death of a Salesman to the extent that the importance of the other players may be overlooked.

But it is those around Loman - his sons, his wife and his neighbours - who mirror the man's faults and failings and reflect glimpses of another life he, and they, might have lived had he not been so hellbent on adhering to social expectations and pursuing a restricted version of the so-called American dream.

Given that, and the force of all that Loman represents, a director must cast carefully and considerately; every player needs to be able to hold their own and through their performances communicate the rich range of playwright Arthur Miller's ideas.

Jesse Peach, who returns to New Zealand from Sydney to direct the latest incarnation of Death of a Salesman, began recruiting his actors over a year ago with George Henare as Loman, the cornerstone of his cast, and Catherine Wilkin as Loman's wife, Linda.

Veteran performers Ken Blackburn, Bruce Phillips and Annie Whittle join rising talents Anna Jullienne and Nic Samson in the leading roles.

Ian Hughes and Richard Knowles play the Loman sons, Biff and Happy, who have well and truly had the sins and expectations of their father laid upon them. Peach says it was a straightforward decision to cast Knowles as Happy because he is charismatic and confident like the character, but he acknowledges - as does Hughes - some might be surprised at his choice for Biff.

"But Ian looks the way I imagine Biff will, he's the right age, he's perfect with accents and he's versatile and incredibly intelligent so he brings the kind of insight you need to the character."

Hughes says playing Biff offers him the opportunity to show another side to his acting. Often cast in goofier roles - think Shortland Street's Martin "Sticky" Stickwell - he welcomes portraying a character with strength and status.

"I think it's fair to say I'm often playing the clown, so this is a challenge for me as there are some habits I have to break. It is a pleasure to play someone with inner strength."

Both Hughes and Knowles have seen performances of Death of a Salesman; Knowles six years ago in Wellington with Henare in the lead role, and Hughes at the Mercury Theatre when he was in his last year at secondary school and Blackburn played Loman.

Both recall being provoked and moved by the story and performances but say though the feelings prompted by the play may linger, precise memories do not.

"It's a different cast, a different setting," says Knowles. "If you picture what someone else has done, you miss opportunities to bring new insights and your own touch. Its story and themes are deeply ingrained and the story is re-told all around the world in many different guises."

Death of a Salesman has been enjoying a global revival. First performed in 1949, when its premises and prophecies may have seemed a good deal more controversial than today, it won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play, launching it on its way to becoming a modern classic.

Its most recent Broadway revival, this year, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Loman, garnered two more Tony Awards, and it broke box office records at Sydney's Belvoir Theatre which had to extend its run.

Hughes points out that much has been written about the play's continuing relevance. He sees it as highlighting the kind of debates New Zealand is having about the society it wants to be.

"Death of a Salesman deals with these themes, most obviously the 'American dream' but there's a wider undercurrent about how to treat each other as human beings and that's going on here at the moment. There's a huge discussion in this country, emphasised by the likes of national standards in schools, about what is the path forward in terms of the way we tackle issues as a society and the ways in which we judge success.

"I think Biff is trying to work out the truth about who he is amid all the voices that are coming at him. People need to be given the tools to work out who they are and what they are best suited to."

But as Knowles points out, the Loman family has a vested interest in continued delusions of grandeur and success: "Nobody in the family wants to hear what Biff might have to say because it will shatter their illusions. The truth hurts."

What: Death of a Salesman
Where and When: Maidment Theatre, October 11-27

- NZ Herald

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