Even before Antony Sher first shuffles onstage as Willy Loman Brooklyn never looked bleaker. The fatigue found throughout Miller’s melancholy masterpiece seems to spill off the stage in Gregory Doran’s brilliant production for the RSC.
Sher is superb as Loman. Trapped like a hamster on the wheel of a life which, although he may hate, he’s also hooked. He hopes for another hit of the adrenaline it once offered – a junkie whose fix no longer works.
Returning home from another unsuccessful sales trip to Linda, his ever-patient wife, (played perfectly by Harriet Walter), he wants to immediately escape again. Although, as she accurately observes, Willy’s mind is indeed “overactive”, it’s also worn out.
Demanding she open something in the tiny kitchen, she explains the windows are open.
“Bricks and windows. Windows and Bricks,” is Willy’s reply. Summing up his state of mind, it should be his motto, helped enormously by designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ cleverly cramped set, complemented by Tim Mitchell’s evocative lighting.
The world has changed and Willy’s a relic clinging to the familiar, but Biff his eldest son is a disappointment. His hope of leaving a Loman legacy, Biff (Alec Hassell, the all-American athlete) refuses to play the part his father’s cast him in.
Youngest son Happy also lacks purpose: “I don’t know what the hell I’m working for.” Sam Marks captures Hap’s easy charm who, despite grabbing girl after girl, is lonely. Biff isn’t interested in money but, like his father, that’s Hap’s only measure of success – that and women. Even casual conquests lose their thrill though, now an easy way to compensate for his business inferiority.
Willy switches between past and present like others change radio stations. This makes processing the present even harder, reminding him of unfulfilled promises.
In one flashback, warned by Biff’s neighbour and classmate Bernard, a nerdy Brodie Ross, about Biff’s lack of exam preparation, Willy laughs it off announcing to both his boys: “Be liked and you will never want.”
To him, being liked is everything so, seeking an answer for his current state, Willy is drawn increasingly to Biff’s high-school glory-days.
Neighbour Charley’s (Joshua Richards) gruff realism is unfathomable to Willy. His dead brother Ben (Guy Paul) drifts on and offstage like smoke and Willy begs him to stay, seeking his big brother’s approval as reassurance.
Where Willy is obsessed with other’s opinions, Biff couldn’t care less: “I hate this city,” he screams at Linda.
One thing Willy is incapable of is listening. To him image is everything. The flat, falling to pieces around him, is analogous for his state of mind and current situation.
Charley, despite his frivolity understands the need to concentrate on what’s possible.
When the brother’s business plan fails following Biff’s rejection, he and Hap wake from the dream their father ‘s trapped them both in for 15 years.
Only Willy refuses to, until the past pushes into the present. Forced to face his greatest failure the play is brought to its heart-breaking climax.