Time Out says
Antony Sher and Harriet Walter arrive with this transfer of the RSC's production of Arthur Miller's great tragedy.
Theatre hipsters who view the RSC as irredeemably square might roll their eyes at the prospect of artistic director Gregory Doran’s trad revival of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, which must inevitably suffer some comparisons to the last Miller in the West End – Ivo van Hove’s Olivier-winning avant-garde ‘A View from the Bridge’, a show that would scarcely have attracted more acclaim if it had managed to keep the Tories out.
But the thing is, the RSC didn’t get where it is today by listening to theatre hipsters, and though Doran’s production took a little while to settle for me – the stately pace, the pitch perfect but slightly ostentatious Brooklyn accents, the general un-Hove-ishness of it all – the fact is that Doran knows what he’s doing.
As Willy Loman, the titular washed-up salesman, Antony Sher’s voice is, at first, a distracting mumble, a constant low-pitched whine that jars the nerves with its ceaseless buzzing. But as he blunders on ever more erratically, it becomes apparent that this little man is, in his own way, a force of nature, a non-stop one man hubbub whose increasingly odd behaviour is masked by a strange, tragic charisma that’s allowed his mess of a life to continue to move forward on fumes alone. He is tragic because he had something once. Given a little luck, he might have made it to retirement without falling apart. Unfortunately, he’s come up just short.
It’s a splendid performance in a night full of them: Harriet Walter is reliably brilliant – tired, human, compassionate – as Willy’s long-suffering wife Linda, and Alex Hassell is magnetically pitiful as his son Biff, a shattered alpha male twisted with self-loathing over his own failure, his father’s mental decline, and a terrible, traumatic memory from his childhood.
And all credit to Doran: ‘Death of a Salesman’s complicated mesh of psychodrama, memory play and still-pertinent social realism means that it’s almost more studied than performed (it’s definitely a stranger play than you remember). But the RSC boss makes it all look effortless: Willy’s decline is realised with deft precision and a few sly flourishes – voices from the past relayed via Jonathan Ruddick’s sound design, and a febrile live jazz score that grows more intense as Willy becomes more adrift, desperately pinning everything to a mad, doomed hope of resetting the clock on his relationship with Biff. In Miller’s centenary year, this is a fine birthday present: his greatest and trickiest play, done just right.