In 2003, Whatsonstage.com theatregoers voted Arthur Miller the world’s greatest living playwright. This first West End production of one of his plays since he passed away in February, aged 89, not only proves why he deservedly earned the accolade, but also happens to have greatness scorched all over it.
Death of a Salesman may just be one of the greatest American plays of the last century, and this production – first staged at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1998 and then on Broadway the following year – may also be one of the best acted productions you will ever see of it, too.
It’s true that the expansive width and height of the design by Mark Wendland, which fitted magnificently on the stage of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York, looks a little squashed on the Lyric stage, creates occasional sightline problems for those sitting in side seats, and operates a little too noisily. It’s regrettable, too, that miking was thought necessary in a theatre of this comparatively modest size; it causes odd sound reverberations at times.
But these minor niggles aside, the reverberating drama that unfolds over three hours has an operatic intensity that will have you pinned to your seat. Coincidentally, just as the Lyric’s last tenant Festen revolved around the suppressed emotions of a family and the guilty secrets festering within it, so Death of a Salesman is also about parental damage, guilt and a final round of truth-telling. But the epic embrace of this play is far wider, acquiring a near-mythic resonance and relevance in the hauntingly powerful portrait it offers of an ordinary man who is simultaneously being chewed up and spat out by the business to which he’s has devoted 36 years of his life.
As Willy Loman faces up to the collapse of his family and the loss of his job, he visibly disintegrates in front of us; and Brian Dennehy’s titanic performance charts the slow dawning of acknowledging his failure while desperately trying to cling to the last vestiges of his pride with a complex, bruising power. But, as Willy confronts both his own failures and those of his sons, the play is also, overwhelmingly, about love.
His wife Linda’s utter devotion to him is superbly conveyed by Clare Higgins, who brings the same sense of wrenching grief and fortitude that she illuminated Hecuba with in her Olivier Award performance of that play at the Donmar last year. And Douglas Henshall as Biff, the son who once idolised his father but is now adrift at the age of 34, unable to hold down a steady job except as a farmhand, gives a shattering performance of a man crushed by the past.
But Robert Falls’ intricately layered and minutely textured production is revealingly acted throughout. As the play moves from one astonishing sequence to another, there’s not a false note anywhere, with superb contributions, too, from Mark Bazeley as Willy’s other son Happy; Jonathan Aris as Biff’s childhood friend Bernard; Howard Witt as Bernard’s father; Abigail McKern as the secretary that Willy has an affair with in Boston; and Steve Pickering as Willy's boss Howard Wagner.
There isn’t a more heartbreaking or humane play or production in London.