Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester review *****

Death of  a Salesman

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 12th November 2018

The greatest English language play from the second half of the C20? Waiting for Godot? All That Fall? Or maybe Beckett’s Endgame? No, too tricky by half. A Streetcar Named Desire? It just about sneaks in time-wise but too narrow in scope. Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Maybe but O’Neill has one tone, though certainly not one dimension. Staying in the US perhaps yu might say Glengarry Glen Ross or Angels in America? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or perhaps you think us Brits top the Yankees. Stoppard or Pinter. Or, my personal favourite Caryl Churchill. Serious Money, Top Girls, Cloud 9 or The Skriker anyone?

Nah. It is pretty hard not to argue that Arthur Miller comes out on top. So then it is just which play. A View from the Bridge? Perhaps though much depends on performance. The Crucible? Bullet proof and the mighty Billers reckons it is Miller’s best. For me though it might just be Death of a Salesman. Mind you I have only seen it once before this, though I see London is set to have a bite of the cherry next year with a new production at the Young Vic directed by Marianne Elliot (War Horse, Curious Incident, Angels in America, Company) with Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, Sharon D Clarke as Linda and Arinze Kene as Biff. I wouldn’t hang about if I were you. This will sell out before it opens I’m sure.

Anyway this production will follow the Manchester Royal Exchange production in seeing Willy through African-American eyes. Adding an extra dimension to the unravelling of his particular American Dream, particularly here with a white wife, making Willy’s and the boys “exclusion” even more pointed. The thing about Death of a Salesman is that you get the big picture satire of the “Dream”, the promise that everyone in America will have the opportunity to achieve riches and success through hard work, application and initiative, but you also get a family tragedy, set across just 48 hours, of near Grecian proportions. All filtered through a formal experiment, as time and event overlap in Willy’s head, which demands attention, but is never intimidating, for the audience. From the very first line Willy utters “it’s all right, I came back” you know what these characters are saying and why they are saying it. If you cannot feel the pain of Willy and those around him then I respectfully suggest you go back to your home planet.

Sarah Churchwell, who is a professor of American Literature at the University of London, has written a very interesting programme note which explains that Willy’s failure to reap the rewards he thinks he deserves, the wealth and the status, the “success”, also points to the perversion of an original “American Dream” which was predicated not just on the trappings of consumerism, but was rooted in a “pursuit of happiness” that hadn’t been degraded by individualistic capitalism. If you “win” all the material trappings are yours. If you “lose” then don’t expect any reciprocal duty of care from the society around you. Blimey. Even if you might not entirely agree with this, the point that Miller’s play, and it’s not so sub-by sub-texts, can hold up under the weight of such interpretation, whilst still putting you through the emotional grinder, is testament to its brilliance. 

I’ll spare you, and me, some half-baked amateur analysis. You can do that yourselves. What about this production? Well this was the Tourist’s inaugural visit to the Royal Exchange now that he is a full-time layabout. Mancunians have much to be proud of in their city, but surely the Royal Exchange must rank somewhere near the top. A super space, a sphere plonked inside the Great Hall of the Victorian commodities exchange, refurbished last after the 1996 IRA bomb, with vibrant public spaces and bars/restaurants spaced around the auditorium. Sorry if I sound like a patronising London twat but I was bowled over. Inside is even better. Now I may have benefitted from splashing out on a front row, stalls seat, but this is, by some way the most comfortable perch I have ever viewed from. I am back for the Mother Courage next year, (and the revival of The Skull in Connemara up the road at the Oldham Coliseum). Can’t wait. 

Now obviously this being my first visit to the Royal Exchange this means that I have missed AD Sarah Frankcom’s previous hits as director, notably the collaborations with Maxine Peake. The Masque of Anarchy, Hamlet, The Skriker, A Streetcar Named Desire, Happy Days. For which I can only blamed personal greed for just like Willy I spent too long chasing money and not enough time feeding the brain. 

Anyway, holding back the tears of disappointment, at least now I was able to see another Royal Exchange regular, Don Warrington, collaborating with Ms Frankcom. I saw his Lear from Talawa Theatre on the telly, which, unlike many others, did not disappoint, but seeing Mr Warrington in the flesh here was mind-blowing. He is a few years older than Willy who is 63, and I assume that Arthur Miller saw Willy as white not black, but as far as I am concerned Don Warrington was Willy Loman. Maybe I am losing the plot like Willy but this for me was as real as theatre gets. It probably helps that I was front row, in the round, with Leslie Ferguson’s stripped back set presenting no obstructions, but this was electric. 

When Mr Warrington was sat in front of me, hunched forward, fingers twitching, the weight of his disappointment weighing down his body, it was as much as I could do to stop myself jumping forward and shouting “don’t do it Willy”. When the inevitable happened at the end I admit to a tear. Maybe Don Warrington is petulant, snappish, irritable and dominating in real life. Maybe he has been crushed by the weight of his own expectations. Maybe he hears things. I doubt it. I reckon he is more like the wry, smooth, relaxed-in-the-paddock police commissioner in Death in Paradise. Either way he is a brilliant actor. Performance of the year so far this year, no question, and there has been some pretty stiff competition. Only wish I had seen him in All My Sons here in 2016.

Mind you Ashley Zhangazha’s Biff runs him pretty close. It has been my pleasure to see Mr Zhangazha’s on a few occasions now, Terror, The Lottery of Love, Human Animals and most, recently, carrying the Public Arts  community version of Pericles at the NT, but again this was another step up. That is not to downplay Maureen Beattie’s Linda or Buom Tihngang’s Happy, or the supporting cast, but the scene where Willy and Biff argue is hair on the back of the neck stiff. It felt like Biff, even in his football days, just didn’t want to believe. Another highlight is the first appearance of Trevor A Toussaint’s imposing Uncle Ben, Willy’s successful, but now dead, brother. Don Warrington’s Willy visibly shrinks when he sees him. Or Howard’s (Rupert Hill) agonising embarrassment when Willy begs him, getting ever hoarser, for a desk job. Or Willy’s pathetic excuses when Biff turns up, in flashback at the Boston hotel, to find him with “Miss Francis” (Rina Mahoney). Or the touching devotion that Linda shows in believing the family’s money problems are on the brink of being solved.

The original title of Miller’s play was, famously, The Inside of His Head. Willy’s interior world and the exterior reality are in constant flux. To stage a production with this much clarity, on a copper disc, with no scenery bar a few branches overhead, no rooms, and few props, in a raised circle on which the non-speaking cast rest.and watch, in a theatre in the round, which itself is in a sphere, could hardly have been more apposite. This staging, together with the casting, may make for a less immediate connection than in other, more “traditional” productions but, for me, Death of a Salesman is as much food for the brain as blood for the heart, if you will forgive the mangled metaphors. And it brings home, from this now 70 year old play, that Willy is still right here, right now in many men. 

A triumph. 

Hamlet at the Hackney Empire review ****

hackney_empire_2

Hamlet

Hackney Empire, 19th March 2018

Working on the premise that it surely is impossible to see Hamlet too often in a lifetime, and keen to make sure the RSC continues to bring as many productions as possible to London, I signed up some time ago for this gig. This despite having already seen the cinema broadcast from Stratford in 2016. A bit excessive I hear you cry. Nope, not when you have an actor as gifted as Paapa Essiedu. His Edmund in the RSC King Lear in 2016 was the best thing about the production, which was pretty good despite some misgivings about the play and Antony Sher’s Lear. Hopefully you had a chance to see him on the tour of this production before it came to the venerable Empire. If you are anywhere near the Kennedy Centre, Washington (DC not Tyne and Wear) in early May I commend you to get along for the last leg of this tour.

There is more to this production, directed by Simon Godwin, than Mr Essiedu however. Mr Godwin has demonstrated that he has a way of breathing new life into classic texts, combining innovation and fealty. (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****). Denmark has been re-imagined as a West African state which yields some interesting insights and a design concept for Elsinore a long way from the usual Northern European Stygian gloom. The programme notes, (I don’t know why people don’t buy programmes, at the very least at the major subsidised theatres, there is so much to learn from them), refer to Hamlet coming “home” after his years studying in Wurttemberg and how he is torn between cultures. There is some mileage in this idea which the production gently explores. There are parallels with Tshembe Matoseh, the main protagonist in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece Les Blancs. No doubt you clever people can think of other theatrical “culture-clash” conceits. Of course transporting the look and the backdrop of the play to West Africa, whilst still retaining a text and characters anchored in Shakespeare’s vague Denmark, throws up a few contradictions but I think that was largely the point. Your man Hamlet after all isn’t short of cognitive dissonance.

So our sweet Prince is already on edge and suspicious of how Claudius came to power. When he sees Dad’s ghost on the ramparts all togged out in tribal chief paraphernalia, in contrast to the modern dress of the present Court, he quickly resolves to action. There is a sense throughout that this Hamlet, whilst not knowing how and when, and running through the gamut of hesitant self examination, is powered by the powerful urge to right a wrong. His feigned madness, his toying with Polonius, the verbal sparring with Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the taunting of Claudius and Gertrude, the carousing with the players, are all in the service of avenging the old fella. The production breaks at the Claudius prayer scene with Hamlet circling in the shadows, gun in hand. I wasn’t sure but I reckon this was only ever going to be a reprieve for Claudius. (Of course I was sure, we all know what happens, but my point is this was a Hamlet who was just gearing up to the main event not a bottler with an uncertain grip on his own reality). “To be or not to be” is a pep talk to self here, not a page from Kierkegaard.

Paapa Essiedu fits this conflicted, mischievous Hamlet like a glove. There is not one single word, let along line, that doesn’t sound entirely right. He doesn’t hang around or over-elaborate, but there is still enough space around the words to take them in. Not the conversational musing of Andrew Scott at the Almeida or the irked ironic philosophising of Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Just a spontaneous intelligence which makes you wonder why other actors seem to agonise over the right tone to take for this admittedly complicated young fella. His movement and expression is flawless. He can project a single glance to the back of the balcony. He seems to find the shifts from comedy to tragedy, well, just easy. Look out for the laugh he conjures up when pulling Polonius’s body from behind the arras. And I know it shouldn’t matter but it really helps that he is the right age and he is beautiful. PE himself seeming to be a combination of child, student, lover, playboy, artist, he knows enough to question what it is all about, but not enough to buckle under the weight of his own existentialist uncertainties. And, despite all the moping about and hissy fits, you can see why people are really drawn to him and crave his approval.

Compare this to Clarence Smith’s Claudius which is far more old-skool declamatory, though this works pretty well in this context. A far cry from the last time I saw this fine actor as the broken Selwyn in Roy Williams’s brilliant latest play The Firm (The Firm at the Hampstead Theatre review *****). I wasn’t entirely convinced initially by the versatile Lorna Brown’s seemingly withdrawn and inert Gertrude, but this made more sense as the production unfolded and the final death scene was very poignant. He’s still her little boy you see.

In the scenes between Polonius (Joseph Mydell), Laertes (Buom Tihngang) and Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) there was a real sense of a loving family, something I had not really felt before. Matching Papa Essiedu’s dazzling performance was a tall order for the rest of the cast but Mmi Ndiweni, (taking on the role from Natalie Simpson in the first Stratford incarnation), came pretty close. The mad scene was both very moving and very scary. Mind you I am a sucker for a distraught Ophelia. And, thanks to both actors, Hamlet’s dismissal of Ophelia, here played out whilst writhing around in bed, actually made sense. Romayne Andrews and Eleanor Wyld as Rosencrantz and Guildernstern struck all the right notes, dislocated in this very different Denmark, and Ewart James Walters turned in some scene stealers doubling as a booming Old Hamlet and a Gravedigger who, judging by his accent, had taken a long way round to get to this particular Denmark.

The production really comes to vibrant life when the colours, sounds and dance of West Africa are brought to the stage thanks to Paul Anderson (lighting), Sola Akingbola (composer), Christopher Shutt (sound) and Mbulelo Ndabeni. The players are no afterthought here. Locating Hamlet’s antic disposition in the artistic milieu of Jean-Michel Basquiat works far better on stage than on paper. You are left wondering if Simon Godwin and the team might have found a few more visual or textual signifiers to flesh out Claudius’s rise to, (diplomatic duplicity alongside an arranged murder?), and fall from, power, and the effect of conflict with the “Norwegian” neighbours, though I get this might have made for an uneasy narrative. It may have helped ease the shift into the bloody carnage of Act V though.

Anyway not quite a perfect Hamlet (play) if such a thing where ever possible. But certainly a near perfect Hamlet (bloke) thanks to Paapa Essiedu. I think I have been guilty of saying too often that I can’t wait to see what xxxx does next on stage in this blog. In this case it is really true and I suspect most of those who have seen this production would agree. On this evidence anything is possible from this rare talent. There are some actors who convince but stay firmly rooted to the stage behind the invisible wall. There are some though that seem to magically come off and out to play to you alone. PE is one of these.