Yesterday afternoon I treated myself to the matinee performance of Death of a Salesman at Dublin’s Gate theatre.
The Gate is one of my favourite theatres anywhere in the world. True, there are older venues, and there are fancier venues, Lord knows there are larger venues, but the Gate has a certain something. She is an 82 year old broad who, despite her chic and her charm, remains faithful to her few lovers. I find it charming that she has had only two artistic directors in 82 years.
She is faithful, too, to her playwrights. Beckett, Pinter and Miller are her darlings at present, and she presents them in splendid style. Happy, indeed, is the playwright whose work is presented here in this splendidly bijou theatre.
For some odd reason the last three productions I’ve seen at the Gate have ended in violent death. The first, Sweeney Todd, was of course bloody from beginning to end; and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler ended with a very gory suicide; then yesterday it was the turn of one Willy Loman. I’ve seen other shows with (somewhat) happier endings elsewhere—Waiting for Godot and Dirty Dancing for instance—but the Gate and I seem to conspire together to celebrate the grisly. Ah well, it must be part of its charm.
Death of a Salesman was written by Arthur Miller in 1949 and the play reflects both the naïve optimism of the American dream, and the harsh reality of society on the cusp of the 1950s. ‘A salesman has got to dream,’ Uncle Ben declares and certainly Willy has done so. But his dreams have turned against him and become nightmares. So entrenched have his dreams become that at the end, when he contemplates suicide, he imagines what his death will be like. ‘That funeral will be massive!’ he says. But it isn’t, of course. Reality is never what we imagine it to be.
A life selling dreams is an interesting theme for a playwright: isn’t that essentially what we do? Create illusory scenes and people them with fictitious characters? This is a play that seeks to expose the unstable foundation beneath the dream and caution us against making the same mistakes as Willy.
In this production at the Gate the setting is downbeat and yet offset by the huge tree that grows through the windows of the tenement in which the Loman family lives. You could debate for hours the meaning of that symbol: does it represent hopefulness in a hopeless world? Is it the dream that knows no boundaries? Or is it, perhaps, a reminder that for all the wooden objects Willy (and Miller) have crafted, reality, in the form of a tree, is too enormous for them to contain, even in their dreams?
In this production, lighting is used to excellent effect not only to demonstrate a change in scene, but also to reflect the change of Willy’s mood. The play is his stream of consciousness, and as such all events are subject to suspicion. ‘Reality’ here is lit in dreary shades, while Willy’s memories, particularly of his brother, Ben, are dazzling and bright, like the America in which Willy’s dreams live.
The cast is excellent, though Garrett Lombard as Biff seemed both too young and too slight, physically, to portray a one-time football player. Both he and Rory Nolan (Happy) occasionally lost control of their accents, but they were generally very good. Their sibling relationship might have been developed a bit more, but that in no way detracted from their performances.
Deirdre Donnelly plays Linda Loman, Willy’s long-suffering wife, as a faithful drudge of a creature. This is a character that could only have been created by a man. No woman would admit to a wife being nothing more than an extension of her husband, as Linda is. And yes, I realise the period in which the play was written, women’s lives were rather different, but I have to wonder what self-respecting woman will let a man work himself to death without at least once asking if she might get a job herself.
Loman’s successful friend and neighbour, Charley, is played with sureness by Ireland’s answer to Patrick Stewart, John Kavanagh. He plays the part with the compassion and integrity that is his staple.
Stephan Brennan as Uncle Ben is as dapper as Colonel Saunders (the chicken man) and his appearance in the auditorium, glittering in his white and rhinestone suit, was a nice use of the small space available. He was so suave, I almost expected him to burst into song, a la Wicked’s Wizard of Oz. (Wonderful, they call me…)
All the cast did a fine job with what must be a very taxing play to perform day after day, but this is unquestionably Harris Yulin’s show. He doesn’t merely play Willy Loman, he becomes him. His performance is heart-breaking, sure-footed, and magnificent. From the moment he shuffles onto the stage carrying his two suitcases, to his final, reckless moment in the garden in which nothing grows, Mr Yulin inhabits Willy Loman’s life. It was a bravura performance and one I shan’t forget for a long time.