Death of a Salesman tells the story of a man a little too old to continue his demanding work and a little too young to leave it all together. Willy Loman and his wife Linda are struggling to pay off their mortgage and the stress shows when Willy starts to lose his concentration on the road. We meet the scene when drop-kick son Biff moves home after years of drifting, and past regrets rise to the surface.
It’s a sincere examination on what has changed and what has stayed the same in contemporary Western society. Does a ranch still cost a few thousand dollars? No. Do families still experience job disruption and personal stress? Yes, of course. It was apparent how close to home some sections of the play resounded when an according laugh broke out of the audience - especially when Loman talks about the relief of paying off a house, only to have everyone moved out. Death of a Salesman is the classic twentieth century play, driven by dialogue, exempt from elaborate sets and performances – and the Belvoir production is just as raw, confronting and real. Director Simon Stone opts for a minimalist set and maximum power from the actors and stays true to Arthur Miller’s script.
Colin Friels holds a strong stage presence as Willy Loman, from his soft mad utterings to the loud, alarming outbursts of frustration. He concentrates on the power of the human voice and although reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s 1985 film performance, bared on stage Friels is almost frightening. His poetic reflections on work, life and the point of it are close to a modern truth.
Patrick Brammall brings a sad sensitivity to Biff, the eldest Loman son, lost in the modern world where business means lying and the charismatic one always wins. Younger son Hap, played by Hamish Michael, counteracts Biff’s despondency with the chirpy tune of a young New York City slicker living the life of bars, business and ladies.
The Belvoir actors speak in an Australian twang and it’s true that this story could take place anywhere but Stone sets the piece by New York. It is a bit bizarre hearing an Australian talk about lumber and pounds. Death of a Salesman is a heavy watch, there’s no comic relief or musical interludes here, and that’s what makes it so powerful as a play. The performance demands a mature audience. For the words of 63 years ago are still meaningful and the Belvoir production articulates just that in a compelling, uninhibited interpretation.