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. 

Henry V at the Tobacco Factory Bristol review *****

geograph-2470375-by-Steve-Daniels

Henry V

Tobacco Factory Theatre, 22nd September 2018

Hello. I feel another bout of hyperbole coming on. It could just be that cumulative exposure is making me realise what the smarter punters and all the luvvies have known for hundreds of years, that nothing comes close to Shakespeare. It could be that my first visit to the Tobacco Factory has revealed a near perfect space, intimate but airy, in the round, with the right vibe of industrial chic, (and a good value curry in Thali next door). It could be that the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company, under retiring founder Andrew Hilton, continues to churn out top quality productions of the Bard, and a few others, as it has done since its founding in 2000. Last year’s Othello set the ball rolling for me (Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****) and I now intend to make a note in the diary for future pilgrimages to Bristol.

However I think the special ingredient in this particular production lies in the direction of Elizabeth Freestone. Ms Freestone is not afraid to offer up a contemporary slant on big Will, which usually works for me. Indeed she is the director behind Jeanie O’Hare’s composition of Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange Manchester as we speak. Queen Margaret is one of Shakespeare’s best, no question, and I gather the magnificent jade Anouka is doing the business in the title role, though she will need to to get anywhere near the visceral walloping Sophie Okonedo gave the character in The Hollow Crown. (Can’t wait to see ms Okonedo as Cleo at the NT which the critics are loving).

What is patriotism? How to tread the line between the glorification and the senseless horror of war? What makes a “national hero” and how does this get weaved into a nation’s view of itself? How does Henry go from playboy Hal to warrior king? Is he just a cipher, whatever we want him to be? Sincere, scheming or both simultaneously? How to think about Katherine? Simpering pawn or power broker? A lot of good questions to ask at any time but especially when a bunch of utter cocks are playing dangerously fast and loose with our national identity. Once again Shakespeare shows he is the man for all ages when it comes to shedding light on the business of politics.

Lily Arnold’s blissfully simple set, four metal cages filled with stones, is put to work as battlefield and meeting hall, military and political space. A quartet of strip-lights, (recycled from Othello I’ll warrant), megaphone, radio and mic, suitcases and kit-bags, bottles of voddy, clip-boards, melancholic Union Jack and Tricolore. It’s all you really need. Less can so often be more in both the history plays and the tragedies. Go with the standard battle-dress/fatigues of so many modern-dress productions because it just works, but then add some twists to underscore the symbolism. A tutu dress for Mistress Quickly, a sharp suit for Cambridge and the King of France, a T shirt for King Henry, “the Artist formerly known as Prince” – I loved that – and turn Katherine into an imposing skinhead with elegant purple frock-coat suit and DM’s to match.

Cut out superfluous roles, in this interpretation, and double up (most intriguingly Chorus/Burgundy, Canterbury/King of France, Cambridge/Fluellen, York/Bourbon and Nym/Orleans). The armies are interchangeable after all. Lose a few of those pesky Dukes on both sides, Westmoreland, Exeter and York on the English side, with just Cambridge to face the traitorous music, and Bourbon and Orleans, and eventually Burgundy, on the French side. Make Exeter a skilled, female, negotiator. Slim down the English and French armies as well, and lose Queen Isabel and, in a real coup, merge the Dauphin into Katherine (and thus make her relationship with Orleans potentially very weird). And turn the Chorus into a detached, Bristolian, history lecturer.

Start off with a big party night choreographed to Boys Will Be Boys. Make Henry physically and metaphorically begin to stand tall as we move through the battles and make Katherine fight him and the English tooth and nail to the end. Don’t make too much fuss about those tennis balls. Let Henry whizz through the “breach speech”. Turn Katherine’s comedy English/French body part translation into a bitter and furious lament for lover Orleans which scares Henry (and us) witless. See Montjoy humiliated in defeat. Watch Henry only just keep it together after the brutal dispatch of Bardolph then wipe away the tears to receive the patronising French embassy. Ensure maximum ambivalence for our Harry as he wanders the camp for this is surely where the mantle of power is most keenly felt. Believe that Henry is probably bluffing when he threatens the citizens of Harfleur so belligerently.

The comedy relief of Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, Quickly and the Boy doesn’t fare quite as well in this production but their cannon fodder status, even as accident, certainly does. When Exeter reads out the list of the English dead at Agincourt the Boy is “none else of name” but we know his pointless sacrifice. A comparatively modest Harry, as here, makes Pistol’s over the top grandiosity less of a counterpoint. Fluellen is as annoying as ever though.

Now young Ben Hall has a bit of history here having played Henry V at the Guildhall when a student. He obviously has the genes for the theatre being the grandson of Sir Peter, nephew of Edward, (now moving on from Hampstead Theatre), and son of producer Christopher. You probably know him as the bespectacled tutor of Gerry and would be suitor of Margo in The Durrells off the telly, (a Hall family affair of sorts). He left an impression in the recent RSC Coriolanus but here he steps up and given a very interesting performance. Deliberatively tentative and awkward in parts, not entirely conversational but certainly not a master of oratory, with shaved head and red beard, he is believable as soldier if not, even in victory, as king. He spits out the lines too rapidly at the start but as Henry rises to the challenge so his speech becomes more measured, though never entirely, assured, as his disturbing “wooing” of Katharine at the end shows. He is not Olivier’s square-jawed hero, Branagh’s reborn statesman or Lester/Hytner’s war criminal hardman. Ben Hall’s Hal is constantly “wrestling with the moral responsibility of what it means to be a good leader” as Ms Freestone says in the programme. That crown certainly still lies uneasy on that head.

Offering us an androgynous Katherine who is near Henry’s equal in terms of destiny, passion, integrit,y as well as duplicity and xenophobia, with the same hair-cut to boot, is inspired. It is hard to take your eyes off Heledd Gywnn. She prowls the stage with an air of aggressive disdain, coming on all Joan of Arc like, (she popped up a decade, and one play, later). You just know that marriage isn’t going to solve anything at the end.

I was also drawn to the performances of Joanne Howarth as the patient Chorus who at one point is moved to tears, Alice Barclay’s largely composed Exeter, Luke Grant’s York/Bourbon, Zachary Powell’s Nym/Orleans, David Osmond’s verbose Fluellen and Melody Brown’s seasoned Gower. The re-gendering here doesn’t shout out. It just works.

Matthew Graham’s contrasting lighting design and Giles Thomas’s martial though still unobtrusive sound design all contributed to this thoughtful interpretation and experienced movement director Lucy Cullingford, even with this thinned out cast, was at the top of here game. There are some astonishing tableaux in this production, though nothing feels consciously artful. Elizabeth Freestone and Lily Arnold took visual inspiration from the battlefield art of WWI, (go see the Aftermath exhibition on now at Tate Britain for some of the most striking). I can see that and it also reminds us just how after this corner of Northern France has been the host of carnage. (Aftermath at Tate Britain review ****).

For me this is a near perfect production, considered, insightful, innovative and genuinely relevant. The company is drilled to perfection and battle hardy and it looks and moves beautifully. Like I say at the top, it could just be that nobody does it better than Will, but there are many ways to skin the ambiguity of this particular dramatic cat, and it still needs an inspired creative team and cast to bring the verse to life. STF is taking the production on tour so if you are lucky enough to be anywhere near these venues on these dates I implore you to get tickets.

9-13 Oct – Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough
16-20 Oct – Dukes Theatre, Lancaster
23-27 Oct – Malvern Theatres
30-3 Nov – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
6 -10 Nov – Exeter Northcott