You come across the word ‘hubris’ regularly in any discussion of the tragic form: The hero suffered because of his hubris. Icarus flying too close to the sun, Jocasta’s refusal to have the baby Oedipus put to death – those who defy the express law of gods suffer swift punishment and retribution. But audiences can suffer from hubris too. We make assumptions and predictions, we think we know what to expect. This is a play about the American Dream. This is a play in a house. What on earth do they think they’re doing? This can’t possibly work. Like Icarus, we should expect to be punished for our arrogance. Unlike Icarus, we may enjoy our fall from grace.
Willy Loman’s spectre looms large in the hall of tragic heroes. After 35 years of being a salesman for the same company, he’s starting to lose his mind and his worth in a rapidly changing economy. His eldest son Biff (Patrick Brammall) has “failed to take hold” on a solid life and has returned home in the latest of his peripatetic wanderings, filling the family home with unanswered questions and old recriminations, which Willy’s wife Linda (Genevieve Lemon) and Happy (Hamish Michael) try desperately to stem and resolve.
A crushing symbol of the failure of the promise of capitalism, we’ve been fed the myth that Willy’s story is endemically American. Simon Stone’s new production of Death of a Salesman for Belvoir, with Colin Friels as Willy, adamantly demonstrates what a lie that is. Though initially aurally jarring, Stone’s Australianised production quickly envelops you with the familiarity of suburban life, of ageing parents and drifting children, of dreams unrealised and promises unfulfilled. In the sixty-odd years since Miller’s play premiered, Australia’s political, economic and social fortunes have only become more bound up in America’s, not less. The inextricability of these connections is only reinforced here by how easily so-called ‘Americanisms’ like “Gee!” and “Boy!” tumble out of Friels’s mouth.
Stone deprives his audience – and his actors – of a‘realistic’ set to cling to; Ralph Myers’s set design empties the deep Upstairs space of everything but a mid-90s Ford Falcon, Willy’s steady workhorse of a car that carries him up and down the states of New England selling we never know what. In the empty space, the steadily worsening state of Willy’s mind is given room to move freely. Miller famously wanted to call the play Inside His Head, and the figures fading seamlessly in and out of the blackness (often via the car) illustrates why better than any fully decorated house could.
Willy and Linda live in a world of intangibilities. They essentially own nothing, have nothing to hold on to. The preponderance of a lone possession – the car, so long a barometer for the health of economies worldwide – makes this painfully obvious. The Lomans live in a world of illusion and delusion: “We never told the truth for five minutes in this house!” yells biff. The effort it costs Willy to maintain these delusions – and the damage they have caused his family, most particularly Biff – becomes achingly apparent as the action wears on.
It's a faultless ensemble. Brammall and Michael stroll in and out of brotherly affection and rivalry, and Lemon’s Linda is a lioness in fluffy slippers, fiercely protective of her clan even where it means enormous sacrifice on her part. Luke Mullins, Pip Miller and Blazey Best in several smaller roles provide some excellent comic counterpoints without distracting from the business at hand. Friels himself demonstrates a mercurial intuitiveness for Willy’s ever-shifting and utterly jumbled mental and emotional states, flashing like lighting between indignant rage, forced geniality and genuine, childlike love and joy. His utterly unshakeable belief that things can and will get better in the face of all evidence to the contrary is the screwdriver on the already too-tight joints of his world.
Aristotle tells us that tragedy must incite feelings of “fear and pity” in the audience. Until I watched the last scenes of this Salesman from behind barely-parted fingers, I didn’t really understand what that means. But Stone and his team have created a world that encapsulates perfectly the rage and grief that sits at the heart of all tragedy since the ancients. The sound of wracked and barely controlled weeping came from all sides in the darkness as we watched Willy’s final moments. Catharsis lives yet.
This review originally appeared in Time Out Sydney.
Interview with set designer Ralph Myers about the set (of sorts) for Death of a Salesman.