Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, Broadway, review
18th April 2012
Death of a Salesman, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is revelatory in the central performance in Death of a Salesman, while Andrew Garfield is utterly compelling in his Broadway debut. First published in the Daily Telegraph, April 18, 2012
It’s fair to say – without too much jingoistic pride – that the British are doing rather well on Broadway at the moment.
Everyone’s flocking to see One Man, Two Guvnors, the latest tweeted rave coming from a delighted Joan Rivers. Another National hit, the award-laden War Horse – hailed as “theatrical magic” by The New York Times – is in full gallop.
Michael Grandage’s production of Evita has just made the leap to Times Square’s Marquis Theatre, with Elena Roger still in the lead. Mamma Mia! and Mary Poppins are sitting pretty, while TV ads for Tracie Bennett’s tour de force as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow seem to flash up in every cab.
Assuming you’re not tempted to visit New York to see shows you missed in London, what are the Big Apple’s home-grown big-hitters? Oddly, the loudest buzz for an American play on Broadway surrounds one first presented 63 years ago: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Beautifully staged by Mike Nichols, it features a revelatory central performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as the ageing travelling salesman Willy Loman. Revelatory because Hoffman forces you to chuck away the preconceptions – above all the
tendency towards easy pity – that have built up around the character over the years. Grey-haired and hefty, Hoffman gives us a man reduced by too many years on the road – “tired to the death” as he says at the start – but not some archetypal shrunken, burnt-out case. This Loman is very much flesh and blood, very much flawed.
His mouth often slackens open in a disbelieving, mystified way, and you can almost see his mind wandering into hazy recollections that Miller brilliantly dramatises in a still experimental-seeming flow of scenes. Yet for all his vulnerability, it’s hard to buy into the unconditional affection that his too-loyal wife Linda (Linda Emond) lavishes upon
him in emphatic counterpoint to the mixed emotions and simmering grudges displayed towards Willy by his two grown-up sons, Happy and Biff, both of whom are still to fly the now-crumbling nest.
Hoffman doesn’t hide the pride and ugly pugnacity of this all-American father who dreamed too fondly of the good life – and that makes the final confrontation with Andrew Garfield’s Biff – an overwrought mixture of filial resentment and thwarted love – all the more harrowing. It takes the younger man to collapse sobbing in his father’s arms, pleading for a release from his misguided expectations, for Willy to recognise the part he has played in driving them all to a place where they’ve simply run out of road. The evening towers into tragedy here, and for once you feel that in the heart and
It may be worth pointing out that Garfield – utterly compelling and making his Broadway debut – is half-British, yet there’s little use in flag-waving. This American masterpiece still leaves the competition standing.
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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