Willy, Biff, Happy, Linda, Uncle Ben…. These names resonate with many, because for 70 years ‘ Death of a Salesman’ has been delighting audiences, been deconstructed by school students and has caused us all to question our place in this crazy world. It’s fitting that in Queensland Theatre’s 50th year they have chosen to open the season with a play of such longevity and to reproduce it in its original way. Bravo to director Jason Klarwein!
There is a reason that this play stands the test of time and it is character. When you write a remarkable character honestly, flaws and all, and surround them with family, friends and the minutiae of everyday life it speaks to us all. Willy Loman is such a character and the brilliant Peter Kowitz plays him to perfection. The amount of lines he has and the weight of performing such a masterpiece is very much his load to carry, yet surrounded by a strong and mesmerising cast the whole opening night audience did not move, hardly breathed, transfixed by the scenes unfolding before them. She Society were delighted to be invited along to witness this remarkable play.
Arthur Miller worked many jobs before studying writing and perfecting his craft as a playwright and he has used many of his own experiences to colour in his characters in ‘ Death of a Salesman’. He was a keen carpenter as was Willy Loman. He travelled extensively doing any work he could, as does Biff. He had to work hard to pay for his own education after his luxurious family lifestyle was wiped out in the Great Depression.
In ‘Death of a Salesman’ Willy Loman’s character speaks to the dreamer in all of us. He has been told that if you’re well- liked, show strength and work hard all will be well. Life will then progress in an upward trajectory and your hard work will enable your family to live a better life than those who’ve gone before them. How do you cope when this doesn’t happen ? When you look back on the achievements in your life do you see the reality or the mirage you have created? Willy is having an existential crisis which is encroaching on every aspect of his everyday life and his carefully constructed ‘truths’ are bared causing his mind and body to unravel.
The story also centres on relationships. A central theme is the complicated relationship between fathers and sons and how this changes as the sons grow up and make their own way in the world. Having three grown up sons of my own this resonated completely with me. It’s as though all Willy’s hopes and dreams were centred on his first born son, Biff, the former high school football star who has never fulfilled that early potential. Is there a reason why?
The relationship between Linda and Willy is also fascinating, for how do they re-connect after his long absences from home? Linda tries hard to please by buying treats like a favourite cheese, showing her love by mending a jacket, keeping life ticking along by making sure she keeps an eye in their finances and yet as Willy turns himself inward these become more of an annoyance than a help. It’s as though every sentence uttered by Linda points out his failure as a man, a father and a partner. Yet it is only his own demons which are haunting him.
Friendship, the role of women, class, race, identity and democracy are all explored in this play which is as relevant now as when it was written seventy years ago. In the age of social media people crave to be liked. We are still all told that hard work pays off. What happens when it doesn’t? Is anyone really well – liked? How do you know? What in the end is a human life worth?
Arthur Miller was told this play had too many characters but I love the shades of light and dark that can be shown by varying roles. Willy Loman is played superbly by Brisbane native -Peter Kowitz in an exceptionally good study and even when he was in the depths of despair you were barracking for his life to turn around and give him the happy ending he desperately craved. Seasoned star of stage and screen, Kowitz, brought the perfect combination of bluster and vulnerability to the character, a masterful piece of acting!
Linda, played by another super talented Brisbane born actor- Angie Milliken, was at times subservient and humble whilst showing strength, determination and above all, love for her family. A mother will do anything to keep her family safe and try to fill in the gaps between fathers and sons. Angie’s strength rose to the surface as the play progressed and her understated yet strong performance was perhaps my favourite of the play.
Thomas Larkin was a revelation as Biff. I guess I was expecting a caricature of a faded athlete, but the depths of this character had you wanting him to succeed, to prove his father wrong, even when he was sabotaging himself. I loved the caring way he interacted with his mother, Linda and Larkin’s stage presence ensured he won the spotlight whenever he was on stage.
Experienced actors Charles Allen, Kevin Hides and Sarah McGovern keep the play moving along with many twists and turns. Debuting for Queensland Theatre is Jackson McGovern as Happy and his sunny portrayal of the second son is a much needed respite from the intense, often sad relationship of Biff and Willy. Illai Swindells plays Bernard/ Stanley and Gemma Willing gives a refreshing performance as Jenny/ Letta.
Praise must go, as always, to the magnificent set, lighting and costume designers for providing just the right mood, essence and time.
In its anniversary year Queensland Theatre Company has joined prestigious theatre companies around the globe performing ‘ Death of a Salesman’ in its 70th year. In fact the Queensland Theatre production had the honour of performing the play ‘exactly ‘ 70 years after it opened on Broadway – February 10, 1949. To me this play still resonated for a modern audience and I found it even more relevant in the context of things happening in the world today than when I first saw the play, as a young woman, more than 30 years ago.
It was a breathtaking, exhilarating and sometimes gut wrenching piece of theatre and a timely reminder to live your life honestly and with compassion for others. A true drama in every sense of the word and I’m so glad the original script was followed. Both my husband and I loved this play and if the stillness in the audience throughout was anything to go by, most other theatre goers felt the same. A rousing standing ovation greeted the masterful cast and many patrons were brought to tears. ‘ Death of a Salesman’ will be playing at The Playhouse, QPAC until March 2. Just a word of advice- Remember to breathe!