So this is quite a departure for an RSC show that originated on the main house stage in Stratford. The more cynical amongst us might assume that it is merely a vehicle for the husband of Artistic Director Gregory Doran. The fact is however that Anthony Sher is a stonking actor and has certainly earned his stripes for meaty leading roles and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s modern masterpiece is definitely that.
It was written in 1949 and remains as heart-breaking and relevant a tale as it has ever been. The strain and torture that is work and providing for your family. The perilous task of bringing children into the world and raising them with hopes and dreams and a desire that they will always do better than you ever have. The desperation of keeping a home, loving a wife and making her happy. It was all enough to drive a man to the brink then just as easily as it still is today.
Willy Loman is a man that has peaked and has not been unsuccessful. His job as a salesman has kept him busily travelling America but has never made him rich living his life as he does on credit. Loman despairs that by the time he ever actually owns something it is normally broken. The mental battle to keep up as age takes hold is frighteningly brought to life in Sir Anthony Sher’s devastating portrayal of Loman. He is a man that was on top of his game, but the game has moved on and left him behind. That is a bitter pill to swallow.
Domestic life for Loman is no less tricky for him to comprehend. His wife is loyal to a fault but surely not living the life that he would want to have provided for her. His two boys are his pride and joy, but frustrate him to distraction with their desire to do anything other than take life seriously. Loman has clearly always taken life seriously, just another addition to the weight on his shoulders.
Sher offers a quite remarkable portrayal of a broken and breaking man. It is a performance that shows the disintegration happening before our eyes, of mental instability and fragility that is both moving and shocking. It makes the prospect of Sher giving us his Lear next year at the RSC even more exciting. Everything about his frame as he stomps and slumps around the stage shouts exhaustion with even moments of high rage or energy being hollow and anguished. His portly figure in his tired suit and slicked to one side hair is a sorry shadow of his former self. How can his children look up to this sad figure now? How can customers be persuaded to buy his goods? They can’t and that is as painful for us to watch as it is for him to bear.
Harriet Walter gives a remarkably understated and statuesque take on Linda, the long suffering wife. Her loyalty is unquestioning but Walter gives a clarity to Linda that suggests she is only too aware and scared of the downward spiral that Willy is set upon. Her love for her children is eclipsed only by the loyalty that she has for her husband.
The children are given manly stride by Alex Hassell as drop out football ace Biff and irresponsible Happy by Sam Marks. Grumpy neighbour Charley may appear nothing but insults and disputes but there is a touching friendship that hides beneath the surface of Joshua Richards portrayal.
Although this revival to mark the centenary of Miller’s birth may stick out like a sore thumb in the RSC repertoire it is such a fine and moving production that is handled with such care and devastating poignancy that it is easy to accept as a canny inclusion into the season.