Colin Friels in Death Of A Salesman | Belvoir St Theatre

Simon Stone, despite his celebrity and meteoric rise to prominence, is still a director in short pants. That’s good. And not so good. Like any good creative artist, he’s not so well-informed as to let facts or knowledge get in the way of making it up as he goes along. And he’s certainly got the smarts to do just that, better than most. That’s why he’s resident director at Belvoir, I surmise.

There can be no doubt about it, attempting Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer-winning piece de resistance from 1949, Death Of A Salesman, is a brave choice. Old play. Young director. When I say old, I know what you’re thinking. Shakespeare is old. But Shakespeare is so old as to be new again. Whereas Death is so firmly rooted in the sandy soil of The American Dream and the home of such and way was touted, worldwide, as a golden age for America and Americans, catapulting it into the present and Australia is an ask. Yet Stone has succeeded. And failed. But, mostly, succeeded.

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There is nothing on stage. Except actors. And a “late model” white Ford Falcon. That’s the only semblance of a set. The only prop. (Well, OK, there’s an iPad that stands in for a Dictaphone, which gets a cheap laugh.) The actors speak as Aussies. These are quite radical steps. Compare and contrast with the contradictory, pedantic fidelity Stone accords the script. Then again, what screw-loose, hubristic knucklehead would dare to tamper with Miller?

So, from scene one, or even before it, we have to make allowances. And quantum leaps. Stone flatters us, almost cajoling with his directorial decisions, coaching ‘go on, you can do it!’ So it’s we, the audience, that’s left to do the translation and adaptation. On the run. While we’re watching. I admire this, even while, in practical terms, having it threaten my application to the task at hand. It’s a minor mindfuck to picture Yonkers, while hearing Yagoona; Brooklyn, while hearing Balmain. And I’m not sure one quite gets past that problem. A symbol might’ve helped.

And this is where I reckon the thinking behind the production approach is a little cloudy. The sparsity of the set is a winner. As I’m fond of exalting in such tending towards blackbox circumstances, it pushes the impetus onto the page and performers. With such a great play, that’s, of course, where the emphasis should be. Keep the Aussie accents. But why not a Studebaker, or a Chevrolet? Either would’ve served to the us into the milieu: temporally, geographically, socially,  economically, politically and culturally. To my mind, this would’ve made the balance right and an audience less prone to being distracted by things that don’t matter.

What matters here are Miller’s big, bold, broad brushstrokes, concealed in dialogue; albeit some of the best dialogue ever written. Those big, bold, broad brushstrokes were and still hold up as utterly fearless. Miller was getting stuck into the very premise, the foundation stone, the social contract upon which America was fashioned and built. Miller was putting the boot into his own country at a time when it was downright dangerous to do so. (Of course, he saved The Crucible as a thinly-veiled allegory for McCarthy’s witch-hunting.) The American Dream was exposed as The American Nightmare, or The Great Big American Lie, as it applied to most people.

It was based in Miller’s own life experience, but was also pure rationalism. Not everyone can succeed, let alone be a football hero, President, a movie star, five-star general, or renowned playwright. But the potency and poignancy of Miller’s tale of an also-ran everyman, a John Doe, came, as I say, from Miller’s own family life. Well-to-do ragtraders, they went bust when The Great Depression hit. It took them from Manhattan to Brooklyn virtually overnight and Arthur never really regained a sense of surety about the world. He knew it could all come tumbling down, without warning. Success, financial or otherwise, was suspect; ephemeral; elusive; fleeting; almost hallucinatory. None of this ‘the universe will provide’ hippie claptrap. It’s a jungle out there. And, for many, the GFC has reaffirmed the certainty of uncertainty.

The time is ripe for Death Of A Salesman to live and breathe yet again.

On entering the theatre, it’s the Falcon that arrests attention. Well, there’s nothing else to look at. It’s lights are blazing into the darkness. As the house lights go down, we see Colin Friels, aka Willy Loman, sitting, almost motionless, in the driver’s seat. There’s a calmness, a resignation, about him. It’s ominous and predestines the fate he’ll inflict on himself. The whole play is right there, in Friels’ disposition. In a way, it’s the pinnacle of his characterisation; even up against the histrionic, confrontational scene with Biff down the track. It’s certainly emblematic of the depth and quality of his performance overall. It’s pretty clear he’s put in the hard yards to make this work. And work memorably. A far cry from his last outing with Bryan Brown. Thank God Brownie wasn’t cast as Willy. Then again, that might’ve been interesting. And he should’ve been cast, arguably, as Ben. Steve Le Marquand is just a little too caricatured for my liking, much as I admired his performance in Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll not so very long ago in the self-same theatre. That was a match. Here, his character seems too similar and is out of step.

When things get heated, Patrick Brammall as Biff goes head to head with Friels and matches him, blow for blow. It seems Stone has just told them to, or let them, cut loose. ‘Go for it!’ seems to have been the direction given and the spittle flies. Both Biff and Willy are complex characters, more alike than not, despite divergent outward appearances: while Willy has cultivated a bragging confidence he doesn’t possess, Biff is upfront in confessing his doubts and fears, which chiefly revolve around himself. Under Stone’s insightful direction, this comparative aspect of personality, common to serially estranged father and son, is drawn out and examined. This is something Stone, at least with actors of this calibre on board, is particularly good at: taking a well-examined play, examining it all over again and finding fresh perspectives, often just by altering emphasis. He looks deeply. He seeks. And finds. It’s a gift. One he bestows upon us.

Despite my long-standing affection for Genevieve Lemon, in several contexts (fave film, The Piano; cabaret), I found myself not quite settling in to her performance. It was just one of those things. Can’t really put my finger on it. Though deeper into the play she engenders empathy as the put-upon, compliant, long-suffering wife, standing by her man but, despite Willy’s private recognition of her and his plan to finally become a benefactor, he tends, at times, to treat her with the disdain many men of the era preferred upon women. As with many relationships of the time, there’s a mutually supportive stoicism that sees Linda and Willy through times good and bad, within and outside their marriage. It’s old-fashioned. It works. They stick. They’re loyal (notwithstanding Willy’s affair with the wild and hedonistic other woman, played by Blazey Best). It’s touching.

Just as Biff inherits Willy’s self-doubt, Happy (Hamish Michael) learns Willy’s facility for spin and learns it well. His whole life is waxed, polished and glossed, to the point where, as a very junior executive, one might think he was a millionaire playboy. Even him. Michael was just a little too slick and mannered. It seemed to me a self-conscious performance, which got more in the way of the character than around it. There’s a palpable sense of acting, whereas Brammall and Friels almost transcend the medium, to deliver the message.

Luke Mullins is good, very good, as the asthmatic nerd next door Bernard, and also as Howard, Willy’s young boss. There’s a sense of Bernard’s adolescent adulation of Biff having a gay dimension, which I don’t remember from other productions. It could be dismissed as sexual confusion, or interpreted as something more substantial. Either way, it adds vitality and interest.

Artistic director Ralph Myers has ‘slummed it’ as set designer for this production and everything works well. The final, tragic scene is theatrical mastery and, in effect, looks like the closing of a film adaptation. All the ingredients to pull it off are there, in fact, including (Nick Schlieper’s) lighting, as well as (Stefan Gregory’s) sound and composition. But it’s Stone who calls the shots an the timing of the ‘fade to black’ is impeccable. Alice Babidge’s costumes deserve an honourable mention too.

Stone may be a director still in short pants, but that’s exciting. Wait ’till he’s old enough to wear long ones, hitched up past his waist. His best, I reckon is still in front of him. Which is sobering, because this, while by no means inviolable to criticism, is a crackerjack production of one of the greatest plays ever written.

In a sense, he’s given us the vernacular of The Castle (which might be seen as Australia’s answer to Miller’s opus) while fastidiously preserving, reviving and revivifying the integrity and intention of the play. I might’ve localised some of the references. I think it would’ve made a well-oiled machine run even more smoothly. But, as is, it still manages to show us a different, tarnished side of an old, American coin. And it affords Friels a new opportunity to remind us of just how versatile, dedicated, accomplished and compelling an actor he is.

He looked exhausted. I’m not surprised. It looked as if he gave us everything.

Death Of A Salesman lives. Even Ford is king of the mountain all over again.

Genevieve Lemon and Colin Friels in Death Of A Salesman | Belvoir St Theatre

The details: Death Of A Salesman plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs theatre until August 19. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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